Journalists from the Krasny Sever (Red North) Vologda regional newspaper talked to zoologists Jose Antonio Hernandez-Blanco and Maria Chistopolova about the programme of Amur tiger research in the Russian Far East. The interview was published on the newspaper’s website on 8 March 2017.
850 square kilometres per tigress
“Our project was launched in 2008 at the initiative of the Russian Government. Our task is to study and preserve Amur tigers,” said Maria Chistopolova, an employee of the Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution at the Russian Academy of Sciences and a leading engineer. “As part of the project, we captured these animals in the wild and fitted them with collars that send signals through the satellite system to a server where we can monitor the animals’ movements.”
“Each tiger has its own territory,” Maria said. “To study the interaction between these animals, we need to understand which territory each of them occupies. The more tigers have GPS collars, the more information we receive about the population.”
According to Maria, before 2008 American experts were involved in Amur tiger research, and they put VHF collars on tigers. To get a signal from such a collar, they had to walk in the forest with a receiver, locate the tigers and take the bearings of the collars. <…> It was a difficult process, and the information was not always accurate enough.
“We were the first in Russia who started using satellite collars in Amur tiger research. These collars can transmit the signal to a special server,” Maria said. “We don’t have to be in the forest to receive it. The first data showed that an Amur tigress occupies a territory of850 square kilometres, which is much more than the total area of the Ussuri Nature Reserve. It was previously believed that the territory of one tigress was 400 square kilometres, as was shown by VHF collars.”
“Among the reasons to capture tigers is to take a large number of biological samples to assess the condition of the population,” said Jose Antonio Hernandez-Blanco, a senior research fellow at the Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution. “We can find diseases, parasites <…> By studying isotopes that accumulate in tigers’ vibrissae (long, stiff hair that are specialised for tactile sensing), it is possible to learn about the animal’s diet.”
The Amur tiger is the largest tiger subspecies in the world. How is it possible to put a collar on such an animal?
“We begin by monitoring the tigers’ movements using trail cameras,” the zoologists said. “At the Ussuri Nature Reserve there were up to 300 such cameras. Then we put special traps along the tigers’ paths. This is a soft, thick metal noose that allows for catching a tiger by its feet. It is very important to prevent injuries, so the noose is tied to a tree so that the tiger cannot escape. Once a tiger is caught, we approach the site and use a tranquilizer gun. When the tiger is asleep, at least three people work with it.”
“One expert monitors the animal’s health: its heartbeat and breathing. Another takes blood samples and measures the animal. The third expert puts a collar on the tiger. But, as a rule, we get assistance from the nature reserve employees, and sometimes up to 12 people gather around one tiger. The main objective is to prevent injuries both to the tiger and the people. We have very strict safety rules and an action protocol. There are no problems. Moreover, we work not only with tigers, but with snow leopards as well,” the researchers explain.
“Putin was not afraid at all”
Spanish-born Jose Antonio Hernandez-Blanco, who has lived in Russia and studied animals for almost 25 years, was glad to tell us about Vladimir Putin’s visit to the Ussuri Nature Reserve. Jose graduated from Moscow State University and speaks Russian fluently with almost no accent.
“President Putin came to the reserve in 2008; he was prime minister then,” the zoologist says. “He put the collar on a tiger himself and was not afraid at all. It was obvious that he was truly interested in Amur tiger conservation; he asked serious questions. This showed that he is involved in tiger conservation not just to pose for a photo. And it’s very nice that the national leader really cares about environmental protection. <…> I later showed President Putin the first location and the first signal we received from ‘his’ tiger.”
According to Jose, the president continues to monitor the results the researchers receive during the project. In 2008, an Amur tiger rehabilitation centre opened near the Ussuri reserve in the village of Alekseyevka. Experts of the Severtsov Institute have developed a programme for raising orphaned tiger cubs whose mothers were killed by poachers.
“In 2014, we released five tiger cubs into the wild: three of them in the Amur Region and two in the Jewish Autonomous Region,” Maria said. “Vladimir Putin visited the Amur Region to release them himself.”