All the way with tigers

All the way with tigers

31 July 2018

The Amur Tiger Centre, Russia’s main organisation responsible for saving this big wild cat, marked its fifth anniversary on 29 July, International Tiger Day. The centre’s director general, Sergei Aramilev, discusses the organisation’s short but eventful anniversary, tells readers about RIA Novosti’s Environment section on various projects to protect the Amur tiger, Russia’s most peaceful predator, and explains why they are so important.

Tiger holiday


International Tiger Day honours all large, beautiful and striped felines now living in 14 countries.


The tiger is an animal that has changed the attitude of many countries and their leaders towards nature. Efforts to protect this striped predator also aim to save hoofed animals that cannot live without forests. So, they help to protect forests, too.


Therefore, International Tiger Day is a socioeconomic project highlighting national efforts to maintain a balance between pristine nature and humans while actively developing the planet.


First, we will save ourselves and the entire planet if we save the tiger.


The Amur Tiger Centre respects this holiday. Our organisation was established, and its tasks and goals were announced on this day. As we see it, 29 July is our anniversary.


Unique Amur tigers, formerly called Ussuri tigers, inhabit the Russian Far East. Every last Sunday of September, we celebrate Amur Tiger Day, an official public holiday in the Far East.


The holiday mostly aims to foster an environmentally responsible society that would realise that it is impossible to save the forest and its inhabitants without tigers.


The large-scale festival takes place in Vladivostok, with other cities, including Ussuriysk and Khabarovsk, marking the occasion as well. They also celebrate it in local towns, including Kirovka and Terney, although on a smaller scale. But these celebrations are also very heartfelt.


International Tiger Day was instituted long before our centre emerged, but we took this holiday to another level. Diverse cultural events, special shows and games for children make people happier. This event has become so popular that Vladivostok’s streets cannot accommodate all the guests.


Returning predators to the wild


The Amur Tiger Centre cooperates with rehabilitation centres and public organisations that manage them to implement their tiger reintroduction programme. Recently, Saikhan the tiger and a tigress from Lazo – a male and a female with tragic life stories – were released into the wild.


The tigress’ case is more or less standard: when she was six months old, she lost her mother. At this age, a cub cannot hunt, kill or eat hoofed prey, so when the tigress was found, she was emaciated and on the verge of dying.


Far Eastern settlements are mostly situated in river valleys. The tigress went to such a settlement in the Lazo District of the Primorye Territory, where she found a dumpster to eat from; kind people saw the cub and told us about her, so the Hunting Supervision’s rapid response group caught her.


Saikhan’s life was more tragic: he had a through-and-through wound to his head. Usually animals are euthanised in such cases so they do not suffer, but we decided to take a risk, and, surprisingly, Saikhan survived. Yes, his face is a bit askew now, but that makes it easier to recognise his profile. I don’t have the heart to say his face is not cute, because we grew to like him so much. Now he feels healthy.


These tigers were also released using the unique soft method. We built a temporary open-air enclosure in the forest, so that the animals would not get stressed out. Before that, they lived in an open-air enclosure at the rehabilitation centre (Tiger Centre) in the village of Alekseyevka, the Primorye Territory, where they were immobilised, brought to the Jewish Autonomous Region by car, and put into this open-air cage in the forest. They had food and water, and they spent a week there getting used to the sounds and smells.


They were released without any humans present. When we use the usual method, we put a transport cage in the forest and open it, so that the animal tries to hide from the cage and the people and takes off into the trees. Here, on the contrary, they left calmly, then lived outside and inside the cage for some time and then went their own ways, although we hoped that they would have remained together to make a family in the future. We hope that Saikhan and the tigress agreed to explore everything at first and then meet again.


The young male has already killed his first wolf and two boars, and the tigress has successfully hunted down a roe deer and a boar. This means that they have adapted, and now the main thing for them is to stay away from people. This is exactly what they are doing. We will see what happens to them next.


The tigress from Lazo has already entered the hunting grounds of Filippa the tigress, who was released a year earlier. When they were at the rehabilitation centre together, Filippa communicated with Saikhan and her through the cage. This is also interesting: the tigress from Lazo looks like she is seeking out an encounter with Filippa. It will be very interesting to watch this tiger triangle.


Before these two, we also released the males Vladik and Artyom. Vladik is totally unique: he lived in an active city for quite some time, even between two cities: Artyom and Vladivostok. The tiger almost never approached humans, so he seemed an unsocial ghost of a tiger. After the rehabilitation, we took him quite a long way from the city: 700 km. We even used a helicopter to release him there, but this didn’t help: the tiger returned to the Vladivostok Airport.


Unfortunately, although the collars that we attach to felines when releasing them into the wild are technologically advanced, the batteries do not last forever, and at low temperatures their operation is unstable, so quite frequently we’re unable to say how long a collar will work. The battery in the tiger Vladik’s collar ran low, and we don’t know his whereabouts. The last time we received a signal from him was in the Spassky District, and the response group went there and recorded the tiger’s tracks, which means that the tiger is alive and well. So far, no camera traps have spotted him. I call him a stray bullet as it’s unclear where he will turn up and when. Vladik’s behaviour is beyond what we understand and know about tigers.


Artyom, whose collar also has a low battery, is now in the Primorye Territory and is captured by trail cameras from time to time. Recently, geologists took a photo of him with a mobile phone, so we know that he is well, living on a game reserve.


Generally, 80 percent of tigers in Russia live on game reserves. The Amur Tiger Centre helps game reserves that do business honestly, providing fodder for the ungulates and camera traps as well as organising research work.


Incidentally, camera traps do not protect tigers in any way. It is all the same for them if camera traps are installed or not. What is important is the photos of tigers, which tend, in the first place, to change the way people feel about them.


Tigers are not human foes


To live in the wild, tigers must know how to hunt for wild animals, fear humans, stay away from human economic activity and have no interest in domestic animals. If a tiger is not afraid of humans, he is sure to meet one, and out of a hundred good people, he will inevitably come across one evil person, and this encounter will bode ill for the tiger.   


The meat of domestic animals is not on the tigers’ menu at the rehabilitation centres. If an animal eats the meat of a cow or a pig while in captivity, he will seek out the same type of meat after being released into the wild. Predators should not get used to humans bringing food to them as all animals follow the path of least effort. If a tiger gets used to food brought by humans, then after being released into the wild, it will promptly return to people. “Give me food, as I’m not prepared to run for many kilometres in search of food – just give me the meat I’m used to.” For this reason, at the rehabilitation centres they, at a distance, release into the tigers’ enclosures live prey, such as sika deer which are bred in a special deer park, boars and sometimes rabbits, which can be hardly distinguished from hares.


Also, tigers should always be observed from a distance, using high-technology video cameras.


If a cat gives birth in the street, her kittens are afraid of humans, so they will scratch, bite and run away from people. Animals can easily learn to be scared of humans – the main thing is that humans should not behave improperly.   


The last recorded attack by a tiger on a human occurred in 2010, when a tiger attacked an angler because previously he had been wounded by a man and changed his attitude to people accordingly.  


According to statistics, the tiger in Russia is one of the most peace-loving predators. Tigers are noble beasts, whose behaviour is understandable. People err, thinking that tigers and leopards are the most dangerous animals in the Far East.   


Tiger student team


There are many people in this country who are eager to help nature, nature reserves and the hunting supervision service.


Currently, the Tiger student team is helping nature reserves to create eco-trails. The nature reserves reciprocate with a host of events, showing how to count big cats and holding training sessions that teach students how to survive in the forest.


To be a member of a team, one should study at a university, so there are almost no age restrictions. The Tiger team only admits students majoring in disciplines related to the study of nature in one way or another. Some students from our previous teams already work in their field.   


Our work is difficult and dangerous


The work of a state hunting supervision inspector is very difficult. The Amur Tiger Centre supports the inspectors, in particular, 14 rapid response groups and two special groups that resolve conflicts between people and predators. As of today, we use a system of specially built lodges – environmental research stations – to improve their cooperation with partners.


The centre actively supports nature reserves and national parks in the Amur tiger range. Protected areas are located far away from large settlements and civilisation, and it is not easy to tempt experts into going there, so we have to create conditions for that.


We have established a system of bonuses for research fellows and inspectors who work in nature reserves and national parks, and launched a project to build staff housing. Although there still are zealous altruists who want to protect nature from  any comforts, including housing.


The centre is actively developing ecotourism, because we understand what nature reserves and national parks need.


We help law enforcement agencies to counter poaching, carry out assessments, take part in investigations and collect information.


Educational programmes of Far Eastern Federal University and the Primorye Agricultural Academy are developing with support of the centre. A joint research centre has been established at the latter where all the forensic and scientific autopsies are carried out. In addition, this centre is used to train veterinary students. It is a good base for them: they can see how research and assessments are done.


Environmental research stations


The project of environmental research stations completely belongs to the Amur Tiger Centre. Of course, with the financial support of our UAE sponsors attracted by the Russian Direct Investment Fund. The lodges’ location is not haphazard: we examined the matter thoroughly, carried out research, and took into consideration the changing forests and the number of tigers and hoofed animals to find the locations where the situation with the ecosystem and its main indicator, the Amur tiger, was the worst.


The tiger serves as an indicator species. Why? Because tigers are easier to count, while hoofed animals are numerous, which makes counting them more difficult. We can say that tigers have their own specific traits, and due to this fact, there will never be a lot of them. We see that if there is a tiger, nature is faring well in general. If there is no tiger, this means there are some problems we should deal with.


We carried out extensive research involving leading experts of the Russian Academy of Sciences and determined the approximate locations. Then we discussed them with the locals and experts, and submitted this to the public councils. Only when we realised that these locations were right did we started building the facilities.


Now the stations help response groups and hunting supervision employees move freely around the tiger habitat, pause to have a rest or work and organise raids from the stations. This means that hunting supervision employees man the stations at all times.


The station system is still developing, but the goal is to always have the hunting supervision’s response groups on duty in the future to cover the entire habitat of the Amur tiger.


In addition, the stations are used by the employees of the hunting supervision service who catch aggressive tigers. It is a special group that solves conflict situations with large predators: also inspectors, but with a bit different background. Such a group always includes a veterinarian. It uses stations as bases, because it is difficult to catch a tiger that has problems with humans. You cannot just go and capture an animal in five minutes. You have to stay in the forest for a long time to monitor the conflict situation.


Scientists may come to these stations: they have everything necessary to carry out laboratory research and take samples. Tiger monitoring will improve everything and will promote fundamental research in general.


As of today, there are 10 environmental stations in Primorye, and we are building two additional ones in the Khabarovsk Territory. We plan to build three more next year. We expect to cover the entire tiger habitat in the future.


Five-year anniversary


An organisation’s age doesn’t say anything. In the case of the Amur Tiger Centre, its deeds do. Today, the centre turns five years old. It is unacceptable to find any excuses to avoid getting down to work and setting forth a plan of action. We plan to carry on with the current projects and develop them in full. We will celebrate the centre’s anniversary with hard work. Our strategy is clear. We are bringing our activities in line with the commonly accepted Strategy for the Conservation of the Amur Tiger in Russia to 2022. Our primary objective is to unite the efforts of state and public organisations for the strategy’s implementation.


We are approaching our fifth anniversary fully realising what must be done for man and tiger to live in harmony. This is possible only if we preserve the forest and ensure its proper use.


The Amur Tiger Centre is a non-profit organisation founded in 2013 by the Russian Geographical Society on the initiative of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The centre does not receive budgetary funding and operates solely on support from sponsoring organisations and individuals.

Interview by Darya Kochenova