The Amur Tiger Named Cinderella
You might remember reading about an Amur tiger cub named Zolushka, Cinderella in English, who was rescued by two hunters in Russia’s remote Primorsky Province when they found her lying in a snow drift, breathing shallow and eyes glazed. Acting quickly, the hunters cared for Zolushka, kept her warm and fed her a steady diet of meat, eggs and warm milk. Within two weeks time, the cub was back up on her paws and her caretaker called on the expertise of Dale Miquelle, an American scientist and foremost expert on the Amur tiger, based in Primorsky.
Zolushka’s Rehabilitation Success Story
Zolushka was sedated and a team veterinarians performed surgery to amputate the necrotic tip of her tail, damaged from frostbite before her rescue. Miquelle and his team moved the tiger cub to the Center for the Rehabilitation and Reintroduction of Tigers and other Rare Animals, 50 miles to the south in Alekseevka. The center is operated by a coalition that includes the Russian Geographical Society and the government-funded Inspection Tiger.
There is sheeting on all fences, so the tigers can’t see outside, and chutes are set up so that prey can be introduced undercover. Cameras are installed allowing scientists to observe the animals from a control center without disturbing them. There are two goals for the Center; to not let the animals get acclimated to humans and to teach the animals to hunt.
Wild predator rehabilitation has been successful with bears, lynx in North America and once in India with Bengal tigers. But the release of an Amur tiger is a huge risk in the Primorsky region. If a rehabilitated cub became a “conflict tiger”, it had the potential to set back tiger conservation perhaps a hundred years. But the upside of reintroduction of the Amur tiger is huge.
If orphaned cubs could be released to the point of mating with wild tigers, not only would the tiger population get a boost, but also tigers could begin to repopulate regions where tigers have disappeared for decades. If Miquelle’s team succeeded with Zolushka, their method could be duplicated in other countries.
Zolushka was the first tiger to be brought to the Alekeevka center. In the early months, she was fed meat tossed into her via the chute system. Then she was given rabbits, which were fast but defenseless and eventually graduated to wild boar and onto the larger sika deer. Zolushka learned to be a skilled hunter and in a little over a year, she was ready to be set free.
The Tiger’s Last Wild Range
This region is truly the tiger’s last wild range. In India, tiger preserves are enclosed on all sides by the sprawling human settlements. The Russian Far East remains a vast and largely empty frontier with the population clusters around Vladivostok, the port city and last stop for the Trans-Siberian Railway. This is home base for the Wildlife Conservation Society Russia and Miquelle.
Conservation Success is Related to How Much You Know About The Animal
Miquelle’s work is both research and conservation. He strongly believes that conservation success is related to how much you know about the animal. And he knows a lot about the Amur tiger. Miquelle and his team have worked through depressing times where almost every tiger they were studying was poached and they saw the tiger population dip to an estimated 330 to 371 tigers and perhaps 100 cubs. In 2005, a second census estimated the population to be between 331 and 393 adults and 97 to 109 cubs. Miquelle is confident that the Amur population has stabilized and planning another census to determine if this is true.
But stabilizing a population is quite different from a growing population and that is what makes Zolushka’s story so important. Her successful release back into the Russian Far East could lead the way to reintroducing Amur tigers into their historic range.
Cinderalla Gives Birth and New Hope for Amur Tigers
The winter after her release, footage confirmed that Zolushka was adapting to life in the wild and she was sharing her range and food with a healthy male tiger the scientists named Zavetny. Miquelle was hopeful that one day he might receive a camera trap photo of Zolushka with cubs following behind her.
Last week, only two years after her release, Miquelle was given an early Christmas present. Camera trap images captured Zolushka with two young cubs at her side, making her the first rehabilitated tiger in history to mate and give birth in the wild.
Cinderalla Became A Mother
According to Miquelle, the video shows the cubs huddling near Zolushka and playfully romping around with her. The cubs also scratch and sniff a “scent-marking tree” where Zolushka and Zavetny may have marked their territory.
Miquelle said his team feel like godparents and are curious to see how Zolushka will handle the responsibility of raising her cubs as she didn’t have the chance to spend her full early life with her own mother.
The cubs are showing typical young cub behavior. “The good news is that Zolushka’s acted well enough as a mother to get her cubs to this stage, a couple months old,” said Miquelle. “That’s a very good sign.”