HUMANS, SCIENTISTS, CENSUSES AND SIBERIAN TIGERS

SIBERIAN TIGERS AND HUMANS

Russian tiger experts Yury Dunishenko and Alexander Kulikov wrote: "Judging from scientific accounts at the beginning of the century, the tiger preferred remote territories uninhabited by humans. When people began moving into its range, mostly to harvest timber, the tiger retreated to calmer locales. Now the tiger has become more tolerant of people. This is understandable — where could the tiger go now to find a more remote location!? The tiger has also grown accustomed to the human’s mechanical equipment, and it’s common for a tiger to appear at logging sites. We’ve heard more than one story about diesel barrels being clawed and bitten through by a tiger. For some reason, the tiger has taken a fancy to diesel fuel and has been known to suck fuel right out of a tractor. Tigers have descended upon villages from remote locations; or more to the point, humans have moved in on the tiger. [Source: “The Amur Tiger” by Yury Dunishenko and Alexander Kulikov, The Wildlife Foundation, 1999 ~~]

"A tiger will rarely run away from a human. Most often it will calmly move off the trail and will let its two-legged hunting opponent move on, concealing itself behind the nearest obstacle, only to emerge again and move on its way, not at all bothered by the smell left by the human. It lets cars and other vehicles pass by in the same way. Bold self-assurance is a tiger’s ticket to death these days. A tiger’s eyes, reflected in headlights, give it away in the dark. Shots May thunder out in its direction.~~

"There is probably no other animal in the central Sikhote-Alin that has had as many legends, cock and bull stories and fairy tales made up in its image as the tiger. Native peoples long ago began to think of their forest colleague as a fellow human being; they do everything possible to ensure that their encounters with the tiger end peacefully. A first encounter with the tracks of this mighty animal inspires in the newcomer a deferential attitude toward the tiger. Many a bold taiga traveler has felt shivers run his spine, sensing a tiger’s presence. There you are in the taiga with its evening ambience, and green eyes are burning holes in your spine, the eyes appraising, measuring. The air is tight with danger and it’s tough to remain unperturbed! Then there are the unexpected, thunderclap-like roar, an abrupt appearance, and a soundless retreat — the animal is back in the thickets. This has rocked more than one taiga explorer back on his heels, trying to get a grip on the situation...~~

"Large cats are not just a part of the environment. They are woven into the fabric of thousands of years of human culture. They are an inspiration for artists and for tellers of folk tales. They are displayed on the seals of cities and nations. They figure in the rituals of native peoples. And tigers are a vital fixture in the environmental balance of biological communities. Disruption of this balance poses an immediate danger to humans.~~

Siberian Tigers and Indigenous People

Indigenous people who shared their land with tigers as a rule never harmed them unless they were man-eaters. If a tiger was killed a solemn ceremony of regret was held. On the banks of the Amur River archeologist have discovered 6,000 year old depictions of tigers carved the Goldis people.

The Tungus people revered tigers as a wilderness deities, a protector of ginseng and the "True Spirit of the Mountains." They often refer to the animals as "Grandfather" or "Old Man" and believe that tigers used their color to ambush their prey by leaping from the sun at dawn and sunset.

Dersu the Trapper is a book about a local tribesman who survived a horrible mauling by a tiger yet vowed never to harm a tiger. It was written by Vladimir K. Areniev, a Russian naturalist and geographer who worked in Ussuria between 1902 and 1908 and is about Areniev's guide, Dersu. The book was made into the 1975 Kurosawa film Dersu Uzala, which won an Academy Award for best foreign film. Recording an inscription to the tiger found in a spirit house, Areniev wrote: "To the Lord Tiger who dwelleth in the Forest and the Mountains. In ancient days...He saved the state. Today his spirit brings happiness to man."

Hunting Siberian Tigers and Capturing Their Cubs

Hunters and poachers on horseback track the tigers in the snow and use dogs to corner them. Sometimes people kill tigers for food. Some local people say, tiger meat taste like pork except it is leaner and lighter. After the collapse of the Soviet Union strict Soviet hunting regulation were ignored and local people began hunting the wild boar and red deer that the tigers rely on for food.

Dunishenko and Kulikov wrote: "Legally sanctioned tiger hunts have taken place in cases when individual animals pose a threat to human life. Tiger trapping, mainly of cubs, gave birth to a specialized industry, and a galaxy of tiger trappers became famous the world over: Bogachevy, Tekytevy and the Kruglov brigade. [Source: “The Amur Tiger” by Yury Dunishenko and Alexander Kulikov, The Wildlife Foundation, 1999 ~~]

"Not just anyone can brave this line of work. Endurance, knowledge of the animal’s habits, personal bravery and courage set these people apart from regular hunters. There is no sense put yourself to the test on a tiger trail if you don’t have quick reactions and a strong back. The hunter’s weapons are a forked tiger pole and a rope. You carry a rifle to scare off the mother. After a long and exhaustive surveillance of the cubs, you finally overtake them, press their paws and neck to the ground and then tie them up. This is not a simple thing to do! Even a six-month-old has tremendous strength and resists any way it can. And maybe that is not so bad. And the work does not end here. The weighty prize then has to be carried to the nearest road through heavy snow and taiga drifts and fallen logs. Sometimes this can take several days. Every precaution must be taken to assure that the cub doesn’t catch cold and is not injured. ~~

"Has the capture of tiger cubs brought harm to the tigers? In the past, when there was an optimal number of tigers, capturing young tigers had a negligible impact on the population; a female tiger that loses her cubs soon resumes her hunting and gives birth to new cubs. Thanks to Russian tiger trappers, the parks of the world now house more tigers than are left in the wild in the Ussuriiskii taiga. At one point in the past, four pairs of Amur tigers were removed to zoos. Their blood is periodically “freshened up” and they have provided the pedigrees for a captive stock that now exceeds 700 tigers. Animals raised in captivity reproduce well, and the Dresden zoo can practically supply the total demand for cubs for all of the zoos of the world. ~~

Humans, Prey and and Siberian Tiger Habitat

Dunishenko and Kulikov wrote: "In flying from Vladivostok as far as Irkutsk, or from Khabarovsk to Okhotsk, the endless chain of mountains and an unending network of rivers, streams and valleys might impress a person as an enormous territory with no people. But if the same person were to repeat the route at a lower altitude, say in a helicopter, he would recognize that the seeming “lack of people” is only relative. Even hundreds of kilometers away from major cities, there is evidence of humans: hundreds of forest roads from which emanate even more trails and snowmobile tracks; forest huts spun out like a spider web; ski trails twisting in all directions. And if the idea were to pop into your head to settle a forest valley, well, you would quickly find out that these days, hardly any “free” territory is left in the taiga at all. [Source: “The Amur Tiger” by Yury Dunishenko and Alexander Kulikov, The Wildlife Foundation, 1999 ~~]

"The taiga is bristling with life. Tens of thousands of taiga hunters pursue the wildlife that is their bread and butter. The taiga is also home to large predators: wolves, bears, lynx and wolverines. There are also smaller animals: fox, sable, weasel and ermine. Each animal eats some other kind of animal as part of an intricate, interdependent food chain. And all of them are, to one degree or another, being drawn into the economic life of humans.~~

"And because they are a part of the economic reality of the region, these wild animals have to be counted in the wild. A census isn’t a simple matter and the effort takes a lot of planning. But then again, this makes sense. Farmers and cattle ranchers cannot operate without knowing the condition of their stock: how many bulls, how many pregnant cows, how many young and old are in their herds. One has to obtain reliable information on population growth rates, on herd structure, to make an economic go of raising cattle. If you don’t have data on your herd, you’ll go bust! ~~

"The theory is much the same in the taiga, except that the factors affecting wildlife in the taiga are much complex: there are losses from heavy snowfall and other weather phenomena; there are changes in the environment caused by humans, including timber harvest, forest fires, and unaccounted for losses through poaching. There are also the activities of other predators, population mechanics, and socio-economic factors. One needs to know the number of resources so as to draw down only “a percent of the total capital” and to avoid permanent declines.~~

Counting Siberian Tigers

Dunishenko and Kulikov wrote: ""Running a tiger census is a... very specific kind of task. A high level of accuracy is necessary and that requires working as a team. The animals freely range, cross dozens of hunting areas and shift from region to region. So merely counting tracks or copying information from hunters would result in drastic overestimates of tiger numbers. For some reason, hunters are inclined to believe that signs of a tiger’s movement through their hunting plot imply that the tiger lives on that plot alone. This leads to the mistaken impression that tigers are “abundant,” that they fill the entire taiga. [Source: “The Amur Tiger” by Yury Dunishenko and Alexander Kulikov, The Wildlife Foundation, 1999 ~~]

"There are tigers that do indeed cause themselves trouble by wandering through huge territories. There is a real, genuine hunger out there, and the tiger’s prey, wild boar, red Manchurian deer and roe deer, are becoming fewer and fewer in number. There are now more roads, more hunters, more accurate weapons. And most significantly, human demand for wild game meat is rising. Our political and economic process known as “Perestroika” has progressed like an undeclared war on the taiga. In this war, the tiger’s only armor is its canines and claws. So there is no point in blaming our striped friend for everything that is going wrong in the taiga. Why don’t we be more productive, starting with a census of this hapless forest dweller? The tiger may be nature’s tsar, but in our country, it is no less vulnerable than the ill-fated Russian tsars of the Romanov dynasty.~~

"The methodology for a tiger census is simple enough. But it requires many people and a lot of time. The fact is that to get a count of these animals, you need to be prepared to count all of them or else there is no sense in carrying out the work in the first place. Among the daunting tasks required for a tiger census is supplying each hunter in tiger territory with a map and a log to record information on the tiger: where and when the hunter travels; what was killed and where; what were the size of the tracks. Naturally, all this is done in the snow, when even such a secretive animal as a tiger is unable to hide its tracks. Tiger tracks vary greatly. If the tracker is a real Dersu Uzala, he will notice variation in size as well as in movement.~~

"For the skeptics and for those who will later collate the data, the diary has a graph on which to enter the width of the animal’s front paw pad. This measurement is not an easy one to take. You need to find a place where the tiger has walked along a road, along crusty ice, along a ledge or on some other sufficiently hard spot, and where it hasn’t placed its rear paw into the print of the front paw, rendering the measurements meaningless. When the measurement is taken, the substrate in which the track was left is noted as well as the freshness of the track. A track spreads with time, often by several centimeters depending upon the depth of the imprint in the snow; this can lead to confusion when interpreting sex and size.~~

Siberian Tiger Census in 1995-96

Dunishenko and Kulikov wrote: "The census conducted in 1995-1996 is worth a special note. Around 140 people in Khabarovskii Krai worked on the census; an enormous volume of information was gathered. Processing the data without a computer was challenging. Forty-eight to fifty-three adults and sub-adults and 16-18 were found for a total of 64-71 individuals. Thus more tigers were counted in 1995-96 than had been counted in 1993 and 1994. In our opinion, this does not indicate a general growth in the tiger population. Most likely the increase in the tiger count is caused by two factors: the wandering in of tigers from neighboring Primorskii Krai; and the fact that the census work was carried out more thoroughly. And of course, one has to remember that wild tigers cannot just be counted in an enclosed pen! [Source: “The Amur Tiger” by Yury Dunishenko and Alexander Kulikov, The Wildlife Foundation, 1999 ~~]

"The goals of the census were to take an inventory and to identify any significant trends: is there an increase or a decrease in the number of tigers? The results were not uniform: tiger numbers in the best habitat are almost stable, but on the edges of their habitat, there are indications of a steady decline in numbers. Depending upon conditions and the detail of the work, various mistakes can be made during a census, so in looking for trends, we do not focus upon absolute indicators. We look at indirect factors that most completely reflect the situation in terms of population growth dynamics. A female tiger with cubs is easily tracked and so we make every attempt to locate her and to observe her ways. Here is our conclusion: when tiger numbers were increasing (during the 1980s), a female gave birth to an average of 2.3 cubs. During our most recent census, the figure was 1.3. At the same time, the number of tiger cubs has annually decreased by 8.8 percent. The number of ungulates dropped by approximately the same ration. Everything is interconnected. ~~

"Judging from observations taken in 1997-98, the process, for the time being, has reversed, and now female tigers average 1.6 cubs, up from 1995-96. We foresaw this reversal. At the same time, we warned people that a slight increase does not mean a stable trend. This is most likely the temporary result of an increase in the number of wild boar numbers and in the stabilization of red Manchurian deer numbers, the s-called prey base for tigers. Simply stated, there is little reason to be optimistic. The tiger population may enjoy a temporary increase, but then it is likely to suffer a new decline in keeping with the general downward trend. All that we can say is that the “bumps” on the graph will be much finer than earlier recorded." ~~

Data from Siberian Tiger Censuses

Dunishenko and Kulikov wrote: "Determining the sex of the animal is very important. Most hunters are convinced that they can unerringly sex an animal on sight alone. This is too bad. There is always a degree of doubt; it is tricky to tell a tiger’s sex, even when it leaves its calling card by peeing in the snow. If the animal has dug into the snow and left a mark on top, it is probably a male. If the spot is larger than 10.5 cm (4.1 inches), it’s definitely a male. Animals with pads smaller than 9.5 — 10 cm (3.7-3.9 inches) are more difficult to sex. It could be an adult female, a cub or a young male. So you have to move along the tracks for some distance before you can say who is who. [Source: “The Amur Tiger” by Yury Dunishenko and Alexander Kulikov, The Wildlife Foundation, 1999 ~~]

"Estimating the number of tigers is not the only task of a census. As we pointed out earlier, it is very important to obtain as exact an impression of the population structure as is reasonably possible. If this kind of census is carried out once every two or three years, some very interesting data can be obtained. Cubs grow into adults, although not all of them live to reach maturity. Comparative data on the number of cubs with the number that live to sexual maturity reveal natural selection trends.~~

"Few tigers die from old age. Crafty traps and bullets, sickness, and fights with brown bears tend to cut short the lives of both young and adult tigers. All of these dynamics are revealed through monitoring, the regular collection of data at specific sites, and it is based upon a single methodology. Census results then serve as a basis for improving conservation and protection measures.~~

"The censuses conducted in 1993 and 1994 show that of 34 reported births, after two years, 18 cubs had died, or 16.4 percent per year. This means that barely 30 percent of the cubs reach sexual maturity. Calculating from a base number of 54-55 tigers in Khabarovskii Krai in 1993, in 1994 the population should have reached 70-72 individuals. But it turns out that we are “short” 13-15 animals, mostly adults.~~

"Unfortunately, tiger censuses are held only episodically. First of all, not many people are concerned with the fate of this animal. Secondly, there is a shortage of funds to conduct censuses. We have already seen one of the consequences of this lack of attention: all of a sudden claims emerge that the tiger is in fact “numerous,” claims which lead to serious problems, including problems for the tiger itself. Now, in reality, we are observing a second tendency: tiger numbers are again declining, and at an alarming rate. In a word, you need to count the animal and then you need to make plans for what to do next. We are no longer shut off from the world behind an “iron current”; the whole world is watching us.~~

"Where does the tiger live and how many tigers are there? There is plenty of talk about this. Some say there are “a lot” of tigers, some say “a few.” Both notions are laughably relative. For one hunter, two or three tigers permanent on his territory might seem to be very few. Another hunter, whose territory is criss-crossed dozens of times by a single tiger might have the notion that tigers are taking over the place.~~

"One of our acquaintances, a wildlife manger who over the years has had all his dogs killed by tigers, suddenly discovered last year that the animal had disappeared altogether from his territory. “You know, I don’t feel right, it’s as if I’d been robbed. It’s the same taiga, but then, it’s not. A gem has disappeared. Not too long ago, a tiger just sort of wandered onto my land. I covered the tracks with a piece of plywood so that they wouldn’t fill up with snow. I thought, could it really be that I won’t see a live tiger again? At least now I can show the kids its tracks...” ~~

Studying Siberian Tigers

Siberian Tigers can be tracked in the snow following their paw marks. Scientists catch tigers with traps and nets and tranquilizer guns and fit them with radio-collars, which allows them to be followed and tracked using radio telemetry and helicopters.

Dunishenko and Kulikov wrote: "Galina Salkina at the Lazovskii Zapovednik has developed a tracking method that uses dogs. She collects tiger excrement in packets, gives them to a dog to smell, and then commands the dog to find the owner of the excrement from among dozen of packets gathered earlier. And no matter how the packets get mixed up, the dog can always flawlessly identify the correct one. Using dogs in this way makes it possible to collect data on all the tigers in the Lazo region, to track their movements and to keep tabs on their fate. This method is yet another way to find out where tigers are living and to get an indication of whether they are alive or whether they have been killed. Even so, the data has to be checked on foot. If hunters responsibly filled out their diaries, all that a wildlife manager would have to do would be process the data and plot the times and locations of the sightings. The result would be not only a complete inventory of the animals but also a depiction of individual territories, the frequency with which the tigers cover their ranges and prey and population dynamics. [Source: “The Amur Tiger” by Yury Dunishenko and Alexander Kulikov, The Wildlife Foundation, 1999 ~~]

"Unfortunately, hunters are not always reliable and so diaries provide only ancillary information to that which is gathered by the scientists. After conducting interviews with local people, with hunters and local wildlife managers, the scientists go out to check tiger trails in the most dense tiger habitat areas, where collecting data on tiger numbers is most problematic.~~

"The most reliable information is derived from a simultaneous census. To do this, you need a large number of mobile tracking groups. Hunters are brought to specific, prearranged locations. On one or two designated days, each person covers a specific route to ensure that all tiger tracks are spotted. The data is gathered and analyzed, and a map is drawn to note the number and locations of tiger signs. For an area like Primorskii Krai, where most of the tigers are located, census work is far from simple.~~

"Much effort goes into tracking females who might leave their cubs for several days at a time. The number of litters and their sizes are very important indicators for projecting population figures. The location of a single female is checked very carefully. Census takers or the merely curious should attempt to follow the tracks of a female with cubs. Following their trail, you may discover that the tracks of one cub may actually turn out to be the tracks of two or three. The cubs will often step into each other’s tracks, as a way of conserving energy. In fact, all animals do that, and people too.~~

Siberian Tiger Research and Conservation

Dunishenko and Kulikov wrote: "The tiger conservation program also contains provision for scientific study. Here is where the skeptically inclined reader might sardonically grin: Just how much time can be spent studying the tiger; everything from the tip of its nose to the end of its tail has been studied! It is ironic that this perception exists. In reality, no one in Khabarovskii Krai has ever received any pay to study the tiger. So, how that tiger really lives in its dark forest is a cloudy subject. A few scientists, as an ancillary project to their primary areas of academic research have managed to spend some free time out in the field and to gather some general data on the tiger. So when you read books by Far Eastern authors regarding how much a tiger eats in a day, a month, in a year or how much distance it might cover in a certain period of time, or other subtleties of the tiger’s nature, well, don’t take it as the final word on the topic. These are projections, ideas and hypotheses that might reflect the truth only in a very relative sense. These are the results of many different people’s scattered tiger studies, and the fact is, we don’t know how much of the data is valid. [Source: “The Amur Tiger” by Yury Dunishenko and Alexander Kulikov, The Wildlife Foundation, 1999 ~~]

"The first carefully gathered, accurately compiled data on the physiology of the tiger’s food habits was gathered by Viktor Yudin during his observations of tigers in captivity. But a tiger pen, even when every possible attempt is made to ensure natural surroundings, can never resemble conditions present in the wild. The American staff of the Hornocker Institute are taking tiger study in the wild to a new level. They catch tigers, put them to sleep, measure and weigh them, take blood samples for genetic analysis, put radio collars on the animal’s neck, and then follow them with the help of radio triangulation. That is, until such a time as the life of the animal is ended by a poacher, as has already happened on two occasions. Soon it will no longer be necessary to crawl up and around mountain cliffs with hand-held triangulation equipment, as satellites begin to pick up the collar’s signal and to transmit the exact location of the animal to a computer, day and night. This is not just an experiment; radio tracking work has been going on for many years and with many species of animals, from polar bears to large birds. Naturally, this technology is used in many different countries. Now it is helping us to fill in the gaps in our understanding of tiger behavior during the snowless months, But this radio tracking is only one part of the research that needs to be carried out. We need to know the animal’s reproduction potential, its dynamic structure, the optimal number of animals to guarantee the survival of the species while at the same time not adversely affecting humans. We have to determine the territory that is optimal for an individual tiger.~~

"In addition, we need to develop programs to guarantee the safety of humans and domestic animals, and to look into the tiger’s interrelationships with potential prey populations, with enemies and competitors. There is a long list of questions that scientists need to answer in order for the tiger to be satisfied and for the lambs to be safe.~~

Studying Siberian Tigers

Describing his experience accompanying a team from Russia Program of the Wildlife Conservation Society, Matthew Shaer wrote in Smithsonian magazine: “At the Udege Legend ranger station, we were joined by a squad of inspectors and two WCS team members: David Cockerill, an American volunteer from Maryland, who was spending the winter in Primorsky; and Kolya Rybin, Sasha’s older brother. We piled into two trucks and made our way into the surrounding hills. The Udege Legend staff estimated that there were somewhere close to ten tigers in the area, but they’d never had access to the camera traps that would help confirm their suspicions, so Miquelle had arranged to lend them 20 units and designed a program for the cameras’ use. As we climbed, the road narrowed, and the snow grew deeper, until we were 500 feet over the valley floor. Pressing my hand to the window glass, I found that I could barely make out the Iman River, a shard of metal in the fields below. [Source: Matthew Shaer, Smithsonian Magazine, February 2015 \*/]

“We drew to a halt in the shadow of a high ridge. Tigers often frequent the bottom of cliff faces, where there is shelter from the driving winds, and where an animal can leave a scent mark that will hold for weeks. Later, the same cat will circle back to see if another tiger has marked it. It was a good place for a trap, Miquelle said. \*/

“A pair of cameras would be set about ten feet apart, the idea being that one would catch the left side of the tiger, and the other the right, to collect as much visual data as possible. With Miquelle directing, the rangers sliced away the undergrowth and Rybin strapped up the cameras. To test the first lens, a ranger named Sasha crouched down and passed in front of the camera. A red light blinked; motion had been detected. The rangers cheered. \*/

“We installed two more sets of traps and turned around to head home. The sunset was the most beautiful I have ever seen: purple and indigo and resinous red. The adjacent ridges seemed to be on fire. I’d initially been surprised that the Amur tiger, with its orange pelt, could adequately camouflage itself in the snows of the Far East. Now it didn’t seem so hard to believe. I thought of something that Miquelle had said about the first time he encountered a wild Amur. “I was just struck by this feeling that this animal truly belonged, if that’s the right word. It was perfectly in sync with its surroundings.” \*/

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2016

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