The programme to research the Amur tiger in Russia's Far East is an independent project carried out as part of the Russian Academy of Sciences' ongoing expedition to study the animals in Russia's Red Data Book and other particularly important species of animals in Russia. The expedition was established in 2008 as part of work of the Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution at the Russian Academy of Sciences (IEE RAS). The research supervisor of the expedition is Academician Dmitry Pavlov, who is also the director of the IEE RAS; the head of the expedition is Doctor of Biology Vyacheslav Rozhnov, who is also a deputy director at the institute.
The Amur Tiger Programme aims to develop a scientific platform for the conservation of the Amur tiger living in Russia's Far East. The programme's objective is to study the distribution range of Amur tiger populations, the number and migration routes of these big cats in Russia and the way they use the landscape. Also, scientists are researching their reproductive biology, habitat, feeding patterns and food resources, the distribution and dynamics of the populations of the main prey species, and the tigers' relationships with rival predators.
In order to gain a more detailed insight into the tigers' ability to adapt to the ever-changing conditions of the modern environment, scientists need to research their habitat structure and analyse the long-term trends prevalent in Russia's Far East forest ecosystems. Scientists also need to simulate tiger habitats by using geo-information technologies to predict the Amur tigers' distribution ranges. The programme focuses on the study of the structural and functional organisation of the populations of the main prey species (wild boars, roe deer, Manchurian deer and sika deer) and those of the main rival predators (brown bears, Asiatic black bears, and wolves); it also aims to research the specifics and the implications of inter-population interaction between two species of big cats, namely, the Amur tiger and the Far Eastern leopard.
Also, the issue of creating a state-run information centre to store all the information obtained about the condition of tiger populations and other rare species of animals is being considered now. The existing method of counting tiger populations needs to be revised.
In addition to research, the Amur Tiger Programme addresses popular science, educational and social issues. The project aims not only to draw attention to the problem of conserving Russia's rare species of animals, such as the Amur tiger, snow leopard, Far Eastern leopard or white whale, but also to raise awareness among the people living in areas near these animals about the environment and the animals' behaviour.
In March 2009, the attendees of the international conference "The Amur Tiger in Northeast Asia: Conservation Problems in the XXI Century" adopted a new draft version of the strategy to protect the Amur tiger in Russia which was prepared by a working group set up for this purpose by the Russian Natural Resources Ministry.
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Tools to Research Amur Tigers
Photo-traps (the LifRiver and Reconix models are used) are cameras used for making observations at a distance. They are installed in the taiga at fixed intervals along the tigers' likely routes.
Each tiger has a unique coat pattern, just like each person's fingerprints are unique. A photo-trap has a special flash card. Based on data supplied by photo-traps (similar to fingerprint analysis), scientists make individual cards to enter information on each tiger living in the area.
Photo-traps are installed in order to photograph animals simultaneously from both sides as this is the only way to make an individual portrait of each predator.
Scientists capture tigers by using special loops manufactured by Margo Supplies Ltd., a Canadian-US company. In order to attract a tiger, a special mark is left on a tree under which a loop is installed. Like all cats, tigers are attracted by the smell of valerian. The trap is carefully concealed so that the tiger does not detect anything suspicious.
It is important that the tiger's front paw gets caught in the loop. In this case, it will not have a chance to break free from the trap because it does not have enough room to leap. Once a tiger's hind paw got caught in the loop and the tiger broke the trap in an attempt to escape.
When the tiger gets caught in the loop, a transmitter connected to the loop by a special string changes its signal.
Tigers are very smart animals. They are resourceful and have keen senses to quickly respond to danger. That is why scientists are happy when they are able to trap a tiger.
Air Rifles to Immobilise Tigers
Scientists use air rifles with telescopic sights from the Dan-Inject company to immobilise tigers that get caught in the loops so that they can carry out research. They use a special injection rifle intended for shooting syringe darts. Gas pressure is adjusted with the help of a special pressure gauge depending on the shooting distance. It can be used to take a shot at an animal at a distance of up to 40 metres.
Zoletil and Medetomidin are the drugs which are currently used to immobilise all large predators, including tigers. The dose depends on the animal's weight. The drugs cause the animal to sleep for 30 to 40 minutes. All procedures relating to immobilisation and veterinary checkups of tigers are conducted by expert veterinarians. The chief veterinarian of the Moscow Zoo, Mikhail Alshinetsky, takes part in the research.
First, veterinaries perform ultrasounds of all captured animals and take blood tests. Then, they fasten a satellite-tracked collar around the animal's neck.
Once a tiger gets caught in the loop, a collar is fastened around its neck. Attached to the collar will be a satellite-linked GPS navigator and a transmitter manufactured either by New Zealand's Sirtrack, Canada's Lotec, the US company Telonics, or it will be a Russian GLONASS device. Information about the position of the tiger will be transmitted to a computer in real time. Tigers quickly get used to wearing the transmitter, which is relatively light. The GPS collar's battery life is about 18 months, after which the collar will automatically unfasten.
Molecular and Genetic Methods
No large-scale comprehensive research based on molecular and genetic methods has been conducted so far. These methods are based on the analysis of the microsatellite parts of nuclear DNA (an animal's blood and faeces are used for this purpose). The structure of these parts of DNA is unique for each animal. The microsatellite parts of DNA that are used to identify an animal have different number of di- tri- and tetranucleotide sequences and, consequently, different lengths.
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Amur Tiger Research in the Ussuri Nature Reserve
Scientists take samples of blood, hair and faeces from each captured tiger for further molecular, genetic and hormone analysis. In addition, all animals get ear marks and start wearing GPS-Argos collars.
On August 31, 2008, a tigress was captured during Vladimir Putin's visit to the Ussuri Reserve. A satellite collar was fastened around its neck and it was let go. A couple of months on, in November, the tigress got trapped again. Scientists decided to give it the name Serga ("earring") because of a photo in which the tigress appeared to be wearing what looked like an earring, which was, in fact, a syringe dart with tranquilliser that hit the tigress' ear.
On October 20, 2009, Serga was captured again. Scientists unfastened the collar, which functioned for exactly 12 months, and replaced it with a new one. It turned out that Serga's cubs had bitten the satellite antenna off the old collar and the scientists could only track the tigress with the help of a USW transmitter. The tigress was once again measured, its biological samples were taken and the old collar was replaced with a new one with fresh batteries.
The old collar supplied all data on Serga's wanderings through the year: 1,222 locations, 16,500 active periods and six full 24-hour periods [when it had no sleep, no food, no rest, nothing]. Data from the collar provided detailed information about the tigress' migration routes throughout the past year. Serga ranged in an area covering 900 square kilometres: 56% of all locations were within the Ussuri Reserve. The tigress also often wandered into territories in close proximity to human communities, such as villages of Kamenushka and Mnogoudobnoye.
On October 26, 2009, another tiger was captured in the Ussuri Reserve. It was given the name Boxer. The tiger was about 18 months old and weighed 120 kilogrammes. Scientists suggested that it was one of Serga's three cubs. Subsequent genetic tests conducted at the institute's laboratory have supported the idea that Boxer was Serga's son.
In the spring of 2009, a weak 18-month old cub, which was left alone after its mother's death, was captured in the reserve. It was named Oleg. After a course of rehabilitative therapy in captivity, the cub was released into the wild on September 16, 2009. It was the first time in recorded history that an experiment was carried out to release a tiger back into the wild after a period in captivity.
At the end of May 2009, the cub, which weighed 60 kilogrammes, was taken for rehabilitation to a spacious enclosure in the forest - where it could regularly chase after sika deer to acquire hunting skills. By mid-September, the tiger's milk teeth had been replaced with permanent ones; the tiger had gained 30 kilogrammes and had learnt to effectively hunt hoofed animals.
Today, scientists are already observing a whole group of tigers of different ages wearing satellite collars. The results of tiger identification by use of photographs from photo-traps, the results of molecular, genetic and hormone analysis and the traces of the tigers' life activities are entered into a database compiled by the scientists.