Interview with Sergei Naidenko on the results of work in Ussuri Nature Reserve

Interview with Sergei Naidenko on the results of work in Ussuri Nature Reserve

14 August 2017

Doctor of Biological Sciences and Lead Researcher of the Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution, Sergei Naidenko, spoke about the results of the year and plans for preserving the Amur tiger in Russia in an interview entitled “RIA Novosti – the Year of the Environment.”


Question: Mr Naidenko, please tell us about the Amur tiger’s key features.


Sergei Naidenko: The tiger is the largest representative of the feline family, along with the lion. The Amur tiger is one of the largest tiger subspecies. We used to capture animals weighing 212 kilogrammes. However, an adult male may weigh up to 250 kilogrammes.


Also, the Amur tiger is the only of the surviving six subspecies that can handle cold winters, so it has the longest and thickest fur of them all.


Compared to the tiger groups in other countries, our tigers live in a common area. For example, tigers in India, some 2,000 in all, live in small groups in small isolated pockets. In Russia, the entire group of tigers, which includes up to 500 animals, lives on a vast territory in the Primorye Territory and southern Khabarovsk Territory.


Low genetic diversity is another hallmark of Amur tigers. There are two reasons for this. The first is that in the 1940s the tiger population was very low and, according to some estimates, it literally may have been between 30 to 40 tigers, but then began to recover. In biology, this is called a bottleneck effect, when the number of animals falls to a certain level, and the genetic diversity also decreases, but then, after a large population is born from these “founders,” the genetic diversity remains unchanged.


The second aspect is a very interesting hypothesis advanced by American researcher Carlos Driscoll in 2010. He assumed that the Amur tiger is genetically close to the Turanian tiger that lived within the territory of the Soviet Union. According to ​​Driscoll, the Turanian tigers gradually resettled from Central Asia to the Far East. The initial number of tigers that resettled was small, and their genetic diversity was also low.


Question: With regard to your work, what research was conducted this year?


Sergei Naidenko: This year we counted the number of Amur tigers in Ussuri Nature Reserve. The annual monitoring of their numbers, that is, counting the number of animals living in the reserve, is an integral part of the special programme for studying the Amur tiger in the Russian Far East conducted by the Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution at the Russian Academy of Sciences.


Such studies have been conducted on an ongoing basis since 2008. They began under the guidance of Vladimir Putin and continue to this day with the support of the Russian Geographical Society.


Question: Why was Ussuri Nature Reserve chosen?


Sergei Naidenko: Ussuri Nature Reserve is a very efficient model territory, which is unique in many ways. It was created as a botanical reserve and was named after renowned botanist Vladimir Komarov, the only biologist to ever head the USSR Academy of Sciences. It was Komarov who, during his expeditions, realised that this is a unique place in terms of the variety of flora and fauna. The reserve is convenient for work as it is located within a two-hour drive from Vladivostok, and a short 30-minute drive from Ussuriysk.


Also, the reserve is fairly small at 405 square kilometres. To put this into perspective, this is the minimum habitat area for one Amur tiger, so it lends itself to detailed studies.


Question: How do you and the researchers count Amur tigers?


Sergei Naidenko: We are using camera traps in Ussuri Nature Reserve. We install them from the middle of January to the middle of April for two reasons. First, in this period tigers and other wild animals walk on forest roads and paths much more often. They do not like walking in deep snow and we can take better photos of them. We find these paths and install camera traps. They are located far away from each other – several kilometres apart on average – but they cover the entire territory of the reserve and part of the adjacent Orlinoye hunting farm.


Secondly, we find it more convenient to work during this time because there are few people in the forest. Ussuri Nature Reserve is very small and people can easily enter it, as is their right. In other reserves after walking four kilometres inside you would still be on its border, but walking the same distance in Ussuri Nature Reserve would take you practically to its centre. During this period people bother animals less and do not steal camera traps. This year we recovered all of them for the first time in many years.


Naturally, if we find a fresh track of a tiger near a camera trap, we take samples and analyse excrement for hormones but this is not the main goal. Closer to spring we catch small mammals that can carry some tiger diseases. We take a serological blood test for the presence of antibodies to various diseases (that shows what diseases they have) and then release the mammals into the wild.


Question: Do you face any difficulties in your work?


Sergei Naidenko: Yes, we had many difficulties but this year one episode was amusing. When we were installing  trail cameras, we saw bloody tiger tracks. There was quite a lot of blood. We became worried that we would come across the wounded tiger in the forest and nobody knows what could happen in that situation. This tiger walked practically in the same exact places where we installed camera traps. Luckily, we did not run into the animal and our trail camera took its picture within three days. This was a female tiger with a very serious wound on her shoulder. She might have got it fighting another tiger or a boar that could have impaled her during the hunt. But she survived and was caught on camera traps several times. Both photos and a video show the scar but it has healed and she is doing fine now.


Question: How many Amur tigers are there in Ussuri Nature Reserve?


Sergei Naidenko: We are still summing up the results of the count but there are three permanent, resident tigers there. There is a wounded young female tiger but she does not yet have a name. Then there is another unnamed young male tiger that is constantly marking the territory and obviously feels like the owner of this land. He appeared last autumn and apparently ousted other male tigers from the reserve. They cannot co-exist together. This is how generational change takes place. This happened in the reserve for the second time in the nine years of studies.


And there is another female tiger called Serga. This was the first tiger we caught and put a GPS collar on. She had problems with her teeth for some reason. When we caught her for the second time in 2009, we thought she might die soon. However, eight years have passed since then and luckily she is in excellent shape.


Last spring Serga clearly chose one specific corner in the reserve. She does not allow anyone to come there – neither male nor female. During three months she approached it six times. By the way, she usually gave birth to cubs in this south-western corner, so probably she is going to have cubs once again. During nine years she was caught by camera traps with cubs at least three times. So we hope she will give birth again and we will see her cubs next winter.


Question: And what about the famous tigers that you caught and fitted with tracking collars in 2009 and 2010?


Sergei Naidenko: One of those we collared has definitely died. This was an adult male by the name of Patchi. We caught him in 2010. He appeared in the reserve once and was never recorded by camera traps. Almost immediately after release he went north and in three months his collar stopped working. We established that he was killed by a human being. The tiger got too close to a village and attacked a horse.


As for other tigers, they are doing more or less fine. The tiger named Professor spent two years after release in the reserve but more to the north of it. One of the reasons was that Banzai, a new male, ousted him and then the collar stopped working. But we found many of his pictures on camera traps and received radio signals from his collar. The signal stopped working but this does not mean that the tiger died.  But I would not be surprised if he died because Professor was an adult, seasoned male and he would be in a very advanced age by now.


As for Lyuk, I also hope he is doing well. He emerged in the reserve in 2010 when we caught him for the first time. We caught him again to change his collar in the autumn of 2012. He had some trauma. We think it was probably from a gunshot. One of his teeth was missing but the wound healed completely and he felt fine. Gradually he left the reserve as well. Most likely he left because Banzai, caught in 2011, had kept the reserve under his paw and other males could not co-exist with him.


Question: How large is a tiger’s territory?


Sergei Naidenko: The territory of a male tiger is about one thousand square kilometres. In some places parts of their territories overlap but usually tigers do not allow strangers in the heart of their territory. This is why they often fight. But for the most part, conflicts are avoided by marking territory boundaries with smells. This is why a males’ territory is continuously changing. Banzai, for his part, spent a lot of time in the reserve but last spring a stronger and younger tiger appeared there. So we began to get Banzai’s photos from outside the reserve, to the south, and this time did not even get one.


Question: Is hostility among males higher than among females?


Sergei Naidenko: It is believed so. Relations between males are more aggressive in all felines. Females are happy to live on much smaller areas – about 400 square kilometres although Serga had almost 800 kilometres when she wore a collar. Moreover, daughters often settle near their mothers and related females are much closer, which reduces tensions as well.


Question: Have tigers approached humans, and what was the local residents’ reaction? Were there any awareness campaigns on this issue?

Sergei Naidenko: Yes, they have. For example, Serga used to go around with her three cubs, and inspectors saw them in the reserve on several occasions. In late 2016, Serga’s litter broke apart, after which the cubs started to look for their own territory. Tigers were spotted near human settlements several times: one tiger was spotted near Banevurovo village, which is not far from the reserve. Another tiger was seen in Kaimanovka village.


People respond in various ways, even though all of them are included in the awareness effort. Local residents know that tigers are listed in the Red Data Book, and that they should never try to run away from a tiger, no matter what the circumstances. If a tiger is spotted within a settlement, residents are asked to call the Department of Hunting Supervision and the tiger rehabilitation centre in the village of Alekseyevka. However, this may not even be necessary, since tigers tend to quickly leave for the woods without causing any additional problems.


Question: What other projects to restore the tiger population are currently being carried out? Are there any long-term plans?

Sergei Naidenko: The Centre for the Rehabilitation and Reintroduction of Tigers and Other Rare Animals in the village of Alekseyevka works to facilitate the return to the wild of orphan tiger cubs. This organisation has been very successful in its efforts. We have equipped them with methods that they now use. We also help them analyse pathogenic agents, diseases and monitor the animals’ health.


Ussuri Nature Reserve is currently viewed as the territory where the Far Eastern leopard could settle in the future, since the population of these wild cats has reached the maximum acceptable levels in the southwest of the Primorye Territory, where Land of the Leopard National Park  is located. For this reason, Russia’s Far East is now faced with the task of expanding the leopards’ habitat within its historical borders. Ussuri Nature Reserve is the closest area to Land of the Leopard National Park that can suit the leopards.


However, these territories are currently separated by the Vladivostok-Khabarovsk motorway, which makes it difficult for tigers and leopards to cross this boundary. The possible locations for building wildlife crossings should be identified. This is what we will be doing this autumn. Some animals manage to cross the road. Last year, a leopard was spotted two kilometres to the south of Ussuri Nature Reserve, some 25 kilometres away from the motorway. Next year, we will process the available information and sum up the results accumulated over the ten years since the launch of the programme to study the Amur tiger in Russia’s Far East.

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