Sergei Aramilev: Tiger mating resembles a holiday romance

Sergei Aramilev: Tiger mating resembles a holiday romance

28 July 2017

Prior to International Tiger Day marked on 29 July, RIA Novosti interviewed Sergei Aramilev, director of the Amur Tiger Centre’s Far Eastern branch, who spoke about well-known Amur tigers, the impact of the One Hectare programme on the predator’s life in the region, and why tiger mating reminds him of a holiday romance at the Black Sea.

Question: What is the current population of Amur tigers in the Far East, and is there a growth trend?

Sergei Aramilev: According to the 2015 count across the entire range as well as the data retrieved from trail cameras every year, the subspecies’ number is stable at around 550 animals.


There is a certain growth trend, but to understand the population increase, we need to conduct a comprehensive count, which is scheduled for 2020. Once it’s complete, we will know the precise gain.


Overall, the current anti-poaching measures are having a positive impact on the population.


Question: Can you give us an estimate of the Amur tiger population in the Far East for 2020?

Sergei Aramilev: Prognosis is a pointless task, especially when it comes to the count of a big cat facing so many threats. But if the trends persist that were revealed back in 2015, including range expansion and population growth in certain areas, the population may rise by 100 to 150 animals.


The number of tigers is increasing, but at the same time, the Far Eastern economy is improving. Without a compromise, humans and tigers will inevitably have conflicts. I am talking about the One Hectare programme that covers a rather vast territory in the region, and about the permitted activities that could potentially clash with the tiger’s life – such as livestock, horse and reindeer breeding and other activities that may provoke tigers to attack.


Question: How can the One Hectare programme affect the Amur tiger’s environment, and what is necessary to minimise any damage to both people and wildlife?

Sergei Aramilev: The Far East is the native environment of the Amur tiger and its prey. Almost any economic development – be it the One Hectare programme or a growing human population and agricultural development – has the potential to clash with nature. Let’s take, for example, pig farms. Boar depopulation is a measure to protect livestock in European Russia from African swine fever, although it is debatable whether boars do pass the virus to pig farms. But if they resort to the same measure in the Far East, we might as well give up on rare species conservation because boars are the tiger’s and the local people’s main food.


We need mechanisms to neutralise the adverse effect of the territory’s economic development. For example, it could be prompt resolution of conflicts between the tigers and people. Tigers have a hard time telling the difference between a grazing cow and their prey in a forest. Without a shepherd or prohibitory signs, especially in a tiger language, they will attack free-range cattle. And the government does the right thing by establishing conflict resolution groups. They scare off predators and teach farmers how to keep their livestock in the tiger’s range. Another useful practice is to compensate for livestock lost to tigers. We record around 10 cases per year, which is not high. Compensation for 10 cows is not big money, but it eases the tension.


As concerns tiger protection, we need to look at permitted activities. If someone is granted a hectare in a forest outside a populated area and the person obtains permission to breed reindeer, for example, it is a hot spot for contact with the predator. So, it is necessary to develop regulations in which the hectare owners will be required to either install high fences and “electric shepherd” systems, or engage in activities that do not interfere with the tigers, such as ecotourism or beekeeping.


If a person has a hectare 20 km from a populated area in a forest and starts growing oats, then clearly, the goal is to attract ungulates from the forest and to shoot them. The ungulates will be followed by a tiger, and who can guarantee there won’t be a conflict? Authorities granting the plots must specify which activities are permitted. Still, it is not yet clear which organization will be responsible for overseeing the use of land. And the programme has already started. So I really hope that any amendments to the law on hectares granted in the hunting areas are made very carefully, with a good understanding of the oversight process.


Question: Do you believe the current anti-poaching measures to be sufficient?

Sergei Aramilev: Poaching results from social and economic issues. If a person living in a rural area is unable to find a job, he goes into the woods to kill animals or cut down trees for sale. In this regard, the best safeguard is to improve the quality of life and the socioeconomic situation in rural areas: if more people have jobs, there will be less stress on the environment. What needs to be done is to promote wild herbs gathering, honey production and fur farming, the very activities that used to sustain the territory back in the Soviet days. We need to help people move away from plundering forest resources towards agriculture and gathering non-timber forest products. This is a lengthy process, and the state is essential to these efforts.


In addition, our hunting control service is still underfunded. The work of its inspectors is as dangerous as that of army personnel or police officers, but they do not benefit from the same wages or legal protection. One of our inspectors was hit by a snowmobile recently, another by motorcycle, but inspectors never give up and only step up their efforts.


We need to go the whole distance with the measures that are already in place, including creating an effective animal protection service and making sure that its staff is well equipped and adequately remunerated. Once that happens, people will view poaching differently. Efforts by the hunting control service are already yielding results. People are getting used to having documents with them when hunting, because inspectors can request them at any time.


Question: Saikhan, the tiger cub who was wounded by poachers, and his neighbour tigress cub from the Lazo District are recovering and learning to hunt. When will they be released into the wild, and will they both be released on the same territory?

Sergei Aramilev: Tigers that have undergone rehabilitation are released into the wild once they reach the age of at least 18 months and preferably two years. It is believed that the best time of the year to do it is spring, as the snow melts and a new generation of hoofed animals is born, which makes it easier for tigers to find prey. Saikhan and the female cub from the Lazo District, who has yet to be named, are now 10 to 11 months old. By May 2018, they will reach the age when a tiger can live in the wild independently.


Specialists feared that Saikhan could lose his olfactory receptors due to his head injury, but everything turned out to be fine. The bones coalesced, and permanent teeth are about to replace his baby teeth. The female cub had an issue with her paw, but it healed and no longer bothers her. Unless something extraordinary comes up, they will be up for release in May 2018. We will try to release them on the same territory, but it all depends on the situation with tiger groups in the spring of 2018.


For example, Filippa, the tigress who was saved from dogs, was released separately from Vladik, the tiger with whom she underwent rehabilitation, since she settled in the Jewish Autonomous Region where the tiger population was not balanced, with a prevalent male tiger population. For this reason, the male tiger was released in Bikin National Park in the Primorye Territory. I hope that we will be able to find a place that best suits the needs of Saikhan and his female neighbour. Maybe they will be released in the north of the Primorye Territory or in the Jewish Autonomous Region or in the Khabarovsk Territory where the tiger population is scarce. This winter, experts will evaluate the situation in the forests in order to issue recommendations for government bodies on where the tigers should be released.


Question: Vladik used to walk the streets of Vladivostok. Has the tiger got used to living in Bikin National Park? Has he ever approached humans?

Sergei Aramilev: There is only one village ‒ Okhotnichy ‒ in the area where the tiger lives. No one has seen him there, and there have been no conflicts with humans. It is hard to track his whereabouts in the national park, since there are no roads in this remote area. The only way you can move around is on foot. Nevertheless, evidence is there to suggest that he is a successful hunter, so everything is fine with him. He even hunted down a big elk. Vladik wears a collar that tracks his movements to prevent him from straying into human territory.


Question: Vladik was the first tiger to enter Vladivostok in many years. In the last year or two, Primorye residents have been reporting more and more incidents with tigers spotted near populated areas. Is it an actual trend, and how can you explain it?

Sergei Aramilev: We still do not know for sure how Vladik got to Vladivostok. It is not true that tigers are approaching communities with increased frequency. As a matter of fact, almost everyone now has cameras, and all encounters with predators, evidenced by photos or video footage, make it into the media.


In addition, in the 1990s, for example, the tiger population was very low, so the number of encounters fell to a minimum, but now that the population has increased, the probability of an encounter is also higher. Moreover, more people now own all-terrain vehicles, and go to places that used to be out of reach. As a result, it is not uncommon for local residents to spot a tiger. However, tigers are a priori afraid of humans, which helps them survive as a species.


Question: How are things going for Borya, one of the “president’s tigers,” and Svetlaya the tigress, who formed a couple despite being released in different regions? Are they still together?

Sergei Aramilev: When we are talking about tigers, saying that they form a couple would be inaccurate. These predators meet for an average of 10 days. In a way, this can be compared to a holiday romance at a Black Sea resort: passion, she falls pregnant and delivers a child, while the father is nowhere to be found. Specialists saw their cubs in the Jewish Autonomous Region where these tigers live, which is a good thing, since there have been few tigers there, so identifying the parents is not hard. In this particular case of Borya, that is what his paw prints suggested. The tiger cub will leave his mother next year, and Svetlaya will be ready to form another pair. It will be then that we will be able to gauge their fidelity. Maybe Borya will return to her.