Tigers in the Russian Far East:

A Brief and Recent History

Dr. Evgeny Smirnov

Research Scientist Sikhote-Alin Biosphere Reserve

Research Associate Siberian Tiger Project

The whole thing was started by the tigers themselves. In the early 1980's, they began to 'visit' villages, farms, and even towns. That caused alarm and anxiety and it was necessary to take urgent measures. It was then that there appeared huge iron cages. Special hunt teams were set up by local game hunting clubs in Vladivostok and Khabarovsk. Furious letters and articles about blood-thirsty tigers flooded the newspapers, though the number of real incidents was low.

There were times when many licenses to kill tigers were issued by local authorities in one year. Unfortunately, most of the skins and bodies of the killed tigers were wasted. It was then that the idea cropped up to set up national and international committees to learn more about the Amur tiger and preserve it. All my personal efforts - reports both to Vladivostok and Moscow, letters to the Academy of Sciences of the USSR, and to the appropriate ministries and research centers - were in vain. Everything went on unchanged: a few fanatic zoologists continued to study the tigers and the game hunting clubs tried to preserve them.

In 1987, I sent my observations and proposals to the Soros Fund. In that report, I emphasized the necessity of earnest international efforts to preserve the population of tigers and leopards in the Far East of Russia. The reply was very short: "There is no money".

I had to ask my own friends to find American Scientists who would express a desire to care about Russian "wild cats".

Here luck struck up. We came across Dr. Hornocker, the director of the Wildlife Research Institute (WRI), whose dream was to study the Amur tiger using radio-tracking method. He applies this method in studying big wild animals in the USA and other countries. He has his own institute (WRI), a team of highly qualified specialists: he is well connected with the scientific and business world.

Many years ago, he happened to send his proposal to the Academy of Sciences in the USSR to maintain bilateral cooperation in studying the Amur tiger using the radio tracking method. But his proposal was politely rejected.

It so happened that once sitting and chatting with his Russian colleague near a fire in one of the US wilderness areas, he was asked to participate in a new campaign to save Russian tigers. He actually was offered to put radio collars around the Amur tigers in a wildlife preserve in the Far East. No less than in two months M. Hornocker and H. Quigley were flying in a helicopter MI-8 over the Sikhote-Alin Reserve, making sure that there was a forest, tigers, and their prey. There were also Russians devoted to the cause of saving the population of tigers.

But it was only a year later that a contract between three parties was signed: the Americans (WRI) on one side, the Russians (Sikhote-Alin Biosphere Reserve, SABR) - on the other side and the "Ecology" - a scientific center at the Academy of Sciences of Russia - as the intermediary.

At that time, the Reserve was really interested in having the intermediary because we lacked both experience in conducting international negotiations and foreign currency accounts. We had to pick up a lot of things while working on the project.

And the work began in full swing.

Each party was doing its bit. WRI was seeking financial support, training specialists, getting ready the radio collars. The Reserve was installing the wooden and iron traps for tigers, and the intermediary was spending the dollars. It was not easy, but by united efforts, we were able to continue our project without an intermediary often learning the ropes. The two of us - the WRI and the SABR - continued in a bilateral arrangement.

Since then, for the past five years we have been conducting fruitful and amicable cooperation with each other: carrying out the supervision, finances, arrivals and departures of scientists, service of interpreters, and so on.

On the whole, there are 3-4 Russians and 2-3 Americans working at the same time on the Project. All the American specialists have been working very hard and efficiently with great satisfaction. They easily made friends with the Russians, in 2-3 years picked up enough Russian to communicate with their Russian colleagues and sometimes even shared Russian vodka with them. Of course, it was not easy for the Americans to understand Russian laws and rules, or to be frank, the lack of them. Why are the roads so bad, the forest hunts inadequate, goods substandard? They wonder why there are electricity failures and why the gas station runs out of gas. Why doesn't anybody want to repair their car? Why is an hour's flight in a helicopter so expensive! Why did a helicopter fly only once in three months: Even the Russians failed to find answers to these and many other questions. We tell them that in the past, under the socialist power, things were better. However, this is quite another story.

But, frankly our everyday life together, out talks about culture, policy and so on were closely intertwined with our day-to-day work with tigers. I was pleasantly surprised that we had so much in common: in all aspects of everyday life, in culture and especially in our attitude towards tigers. We were deeply devoted to the cause of saving tigers, leopards and all other living beings on our planet. But this is already an international cause. It was the core, the heart of all our activities and relations.

The human touch is as important to us as our routine work - it only broadens our like. We observe all the holidays together, both Russian and American ones. We celebrate the birthdays of all the participants of the project. We share Russian borshch, sprinkling it with a hot American sauce. We spend the nights in the "taiga" together, being attacked by mosquitoes, midges and ticks; we sit near bon fires and fell asleep in American sleeping bags. The bachelors from the USA found charming and perfect companions among Russian girls, married them, and some of them have children already. God help them all and let them all be healthy and happy.

We all knew that it wouldn't be easy to capture a tiger. First, we tried our own Russian iron traps. During the years of 1985-86 more than ten tigers who were wandering near the settlements, attacking dogs and cows and scaring people were caught that way. The trap has two chambers: usually a dog (the bait) is placed in one of the chambers; the tiger enters the other one, it steps on an elevated plank and the door behind the tiger closes. The dog remains safe and sound.

Unfortunately, in our case, during 4 months (in January 1992), 6 iron cages and 8 wooden ones, 14 dogs did not yield any catch. The tigers came up to every cage, in some cases more than once, but always not closer than 7 meters away. Not a single one entered the cage. The conclusion we came to was that this was the behavior of resident tigers guarding their own area which differs greatly from those of transient animals who left their own area for this or that reason (young ones, old ones, or sick animals). They usually have to feed themselves near settlements. The latter often entered the cages, the former never did.

The American colleagues suggested we should try to catch tigers with the help of an Aldrich loop, which they often use for big wild animals.

On February 11, 1992 we caught our first tiger. It happened to be a young female (13 months old) who came with her own mother to finish up an elk they had killed before. The tigress was called Olga, and our pet still sends us daily radio signals.

Here are some episodes of her life.

She was caught when she was only 13 months old. She accompanied her mother. Their area was along the coast of the Japanese Sea in an oak forest. They liked to wander on the ridge of knoll and admire the rocks, the hills and the sea. Beauty, silence, peace, and comfort.... In March, we saw one of their victims - a rare goral: one red-book animal kills another rare animal (also registered in the red book). Whom should we preserve?

In August, we decided to catch the mother with the help of Olga's signals when they would be eating their victim. But, we discovered that they were very often hunting separately. At least once, we saw that Olga caught and ate a deer all by herself. Another time we saw them eating a deer together. Who killed that one, we don't know.

I remember one incredible case. We were following Olga for two days near the bay "Upolnomochenny". Through binoculars, we saw that Olga was eating her prey in a high grass clearing. Our further observations showed that there might be another tiger. The next day, we decided to frighten the animals away and set traps for the victim in order to catch the mother (even if we caught the animal with the daughter). Dale and Dima took a gun with a blank cartridge and my task was to observe the scene with the help of binoculars from the top of the rock, as it was very difficult to see anything in the high grass clearing. Every step was extremely dangerous. But this is our work. We have to take risks. Both men tried to talk loudly making a lot of noise to scare the animals away. They were throwing sticks and stones. Then, I saw a red shadow as big as a tiger gliding through the grass. Naturally, the two "hunters" did not see it. I realized that they noticed footprints in the grass where the animal lay and dragged its victim. My colleagues were cautiously following it, Dima was pointing his gun. Dale was ready with the blank cartridge. Everybody and everything was tense. They came close to a stream, they crossed it several times following the footprints. Suddenly there was a terrible growl resembling thunder out of the blue. Dale backed up to the stream, slipped over a stone and fell down. Dima fixed the gun on his shoulder ready to shoot bear! Dale lay still. The he fired his flare gun and the bear flashed by Dale, missing him by an inch. The bear darted up the stream like a horse. Oh, thank God. All's well that ends well. When Dale came up the steep bank Dima asked him where his hat was. Ah, answered Dale, "The hell with it! Let's go!"

Silently, they went down to the sea to have a swim although it wasn't very hot. Later, all three of us went to see the place again. The bear had eaten up everything. There was no point in setting up the loops.

In January, 1993 we saw Olga's mother's footprints for the last time. Where did she disappear? Only God knows. Both Olga and her mother had identical in size. Perhaps, the mother left the area to her daughter. Perhaps she was killed because their area was very close to the farms, forest territories which belonged to the hunters. Only the southern part of their area was part of the preserve where they could give themselves a good rest.

In April, 1994, we used a helicopter for the first time to immobilize tigers. It was not easy but thanks to the efficiency of the helicopter crew and experience of the zoologists, the mission was finally a success. After that, we applied this new method in marking (recapturing) 7 tigers. In some cases, the tigers were marked twice.

In July, we discovered that Olga had her first cub. We did not know the exact place of the litter. Once we visited the place (while Olga was away) from which we heard continuous radio signals for some time. It was raining. One of us, Kolya, quite by chance overheard a hissing sound under a stone. We switched on our flashlight and to our surprise we saw a tiger cub! Kolya has a daughter, Dasha by name, so we called the little one Dasha. In a week, she became a "film star" when a group of Hollywood cameramen managed to film her for five long and precious minutes. But, you should know what proceeded this shooting.

Imagine: a group of four camera men from Hollywood suffering from mosquitoes, ticks and midgets in the 'taiga' waiting for Olga to leave her hiding place just to film a month-old cub for a least 5 or so minutes. The conditions were really tough: continuous rain, mosquitoes, "instant" food, not a soul in sight and lack of toilet facilities. One eccentric man brought a portable toilet stool with him for the USA. He always carried it whenever he was in the taiga. He felt so sure of himself that he was not afraid of either tigers or mosquitos. Once he did not place it properly and fell off it. Later, he spent some time swearing, trying to wash off in the cold stream. His colleagues called him "the man who fell off his toilet". However, he did not mind and kept on being one of the most cheerful guys among us.

At least Olga left her den site at night. We immediately went out to the forest to find the little cub Dasha. Our first attempts were in vain. Later we invited the cameramen with their equipment and continued to search for the cub, while the mother was away. Everyone carried a flashlight, a knapsack with heavy Hollywood equipment. We had to make our way through the dense forest and high grass, stumbling over stumps and logs. To make things worse, we lost the trail. Two zoologists went ahead to find it, while the others waited for their return. Suddenly, one of the Americans called me. When I came up to him I saw that his foot got stuck in a hole and he had fallen down. I picked him up and noticed the fresh excrement of a tiger cub. Then the nickname of the American immediately changes to "the man who fell off his toilet into a tiger's den". It turned out to be Dasha's den under a huge tree (a European pine) which was pulled out halfway. One of the zoologists crawled into the den. Then he was followed by a cameraman in order to fetch Dasha. Finally, the cub was caught and marked and for 5 minutes the cameramen took on. We had to hurry because we caught signals that Olga was approaching. We hope that the film and the mark that we can find later on a month-old cub will compensate for all the effort and time.

The next year, at the end of November, Olga had three more cubs. Unfortunately, we lost track of Dasha. Out of the next litter, only two cubs survived that winter. But, this is not unusual in the taiga, especially when cubs are born in the wintertime. Now when I am writing this story the cubs have grown up and are living independently. One of them has acquired the habit of visiting farms and killing calves and colts. He killed at least 5 during the last month. The farmers are furious. They demand that the tiger be exterminated. What can we do with it? If we catch it, where shall we take it? The tigers in other areas will not welcome the newcomer. The zoos are full of tigers and don't want any more.

It's not easy to find an off-hand solution to the problem. Especially taking into consideration the aggressive character of the "gangster".

In the spring of 1997, we changed Olga's radio collar. We'll keep in touch with her. Olga is 6 years old now. How many litters will she still have, where will her cubs roam? How many years will she survive living near farmers? There are more questions than there are answers that we can offer.

The second tiger was caught four months later on June 22, 1992. It was a big mature, extremely beautiful female. We called her Lena. She had 3 cubs. Only one survived the first winter, but even that one was killed in a car accident. Lena was also hit in the nose in the same accident. We saw her blood trail on the snow. But Lena managed to get over it. And to our joy in September she had another litter. We didn't spend much time trying to find the family. We did not want to disturb Lena. Only on November 21 we saw the footprints of 4 cubs! The same day, we found them on the shoulder of the road when they were trying to cross it. They were small, thin and scared. The fact was that Lena had been killed by savage poachers the day before near the road. The poacher shot her without even getting out of the car. It was snowing and the snow covered up their crime. We found the radio collar in the nearby bushes. These ruthless scoundrels were never found. Maybe they sold Lena's skin and bones and got their five thousand dollars and live happily ever after. But God will punish them. The murder of the mother and the tears and unhappy fate of the four cubs must bring a curse down on them. Unfortunately, after catching the tiger cubs, two of them died. The vets said they had inborn defects in their diaphragms. The other two still live in the US zoos they were taken to and maybe only in their dreams do they remember their mother and the free life in the wilderness of Blagodatny. It is a very sad story but it has made people more aware of the problem that our planet faces.

Four months after that, on October 17, 1992, we caught another female tiger, quite a young one (we thought it was not more than 2 years old). We called her Natasha. We carefully observed the area and waited for her cubs. In December, 1993, we found signs on the snow that bore evidence of Natasha's "wedding". Then winter spring and summer passed and only in November we saw the footprints on the fresh snow of Natasha and her two cubs. (We believed the cubs were three months old). Usually a tiger bears her cubs three months, which meant that the December "wedding" did not yield anything.

In the winter of 1995, we caught signals from three tigers. It meant that Natasha's two male tigers were on their own already. In the summer of 1996, Natasha had another litter. This time there were three cubs.

Now, when I'm writing it is June 1997. I'm sitting in a hut in Koruma in the taiga. Here we are trying to catch Natasha's cubs. Are we going to have luck this time? Nobody knows. The area is too big; it is situated between the beds of two big rivers. We can usually trap an area of not more than 30-40 square kilometers. Will Natasha ever visit our place? We would also like to find out who the father of the cubs was because we knew that both tigers, Dale and Eugene, were there during the "wedding".

Now, I remember November 7, 1992. It was sheer luck! I saw two tigers and soon found their victim - some leftovers of a red deer. As a matter of fact the 7th of November is a big holiday since 1917 - it is the anniversary of the October revolution. I decided to go to the taiga to celebrate the holiday in my own way. After I met the tigers, I shared the news with my colleagues and we rushed to set loops on the bodies of the red deer.

On the 8th of November we really had something to celebrate. We caught 3 tigers at the same time: a female tiger and 2 thirteen-month old cubs. We call them Mary Ivanovna - the mother, and Katya and Kolya - the cubs. It was incredible luck! By the way, on the eve of that wonderful day I was trying to tell our fortune by cards. The cards told me that we would catch a female tiger with two cubs. The first tiger caught in the loop was an adult. We had an argument with Igor on whether it was a female or male. Igor is a more experienced tiger specialist than I am and he said it was a male tiger. I objected only because my cards had told me it would be a female. This time the cards were right. Unfortunately, Katya's radio collar stopped working a month later. We believe that Katya's brother had damaged the radio transmitter. It was quite easy and natural. We all know how young tigers liked to play with each other, fighting and biting especially the neck. The marks on the snow clearly showed us the whole story. Kolya at that time was as big as his mother, and his heel was even bigger. That's how our source of information was destroyed. During the period of a year and a half, Kolya crossed the whole territory of the preserve, covering an area of more than 4000 square kilometers. Then we lost him. Maybe the battery went dead or...

In 1997, Mary Ivanovna had another litter: one cub. We captured the cub as well as Mary Ivanovna and put a radio collar on the daughter, Tanya. Now, they are still living on the bordering territory. God give them health and strength. Mary Ivanovna is already 10 years old. In 1993, we captured 3 tigers. In April, we captured Galia - she was about 2 years old. Her story is a tragic one. In August, she died under a tree that fell on her. Most of the specialists doubt our story. But the facts prove it. We found her 2-3 weeks after the accident; there was no evidence of any other wild animal or poachers attacking her.

During ten days at the end of October and the beginning of November, we were lucky to capture two adult tigers. As we found out later, they were a happy couple. The male, Eugene, was very tender with his girlfriend Katherine. He rarely left their common area (and if he did it was not for a long time). During a period of 5 years, only once did we catch him in Natasha's area but we never saw him in the area of the female Nadya. Katherine gave birth to her first cub in August, 1995. We don't know the reason for it but the cub was stillborn. In August, Katherine completely recovered after her misfortune and we heard the "wedding" roar of the tigers close to the highway (only 50-100 meters away). We guarded them carefully in our tracks day and night. In the beginning of December, a female cub was born. During the whole year we heard signals both from Eugene and Katherine. The signals showed that they were together and we were afraid that they might hurt their daughter. But, fortunately nothing happened. We all knew that tigers could eat cubs. But, this does not happen very often and evidently not in their own family. During February and March, Katherine's daughter hunted all by herself. But now we often receive radio signals indicating that the daughter did not leave the area of her parents.

1994 was a difficult year. By that time, we realized that it was more effective to observe tigers in a limited area. Then, we receive more valuable information. Therefore we decided to concentrate our efforts in the area near the river Jiguitovka. We have already marked 2 females and 1 male living in this territory. On April 13, we captured eleven month old Kuzia. He was one of three tigers in the litter he was born in. All our attempts to capture the mother and the other two cubs were in vain. Only in October, we managed to capture one more male form the same family and called it Bart (by that time he was 17 months old). We now knew that male cubs wandered all by themselves. Previously we had been under the impression that the whole family sticks together. At first, the male cubs went to the seashore, then they went down south and near the town Dalnegorsk the signals disappeared. We tried to trace them from a helicopter covering an area of 400-500 square kilometers, but all in vein. Perhaps it is the fate of all young males to cover long distances in search of new territories for the sake of the whole populations of tigers. We never captured their mother or sister, but their footprints can be seen in this area even now. The mother was called Kuzia's mother and the sister Kuzia's sister. (Americans cannot understand why the expression "I'll show you Kuskina's mat (Kuzia's mother)" is an expression used when swearing.)

In our efforts to capture Kuzia's mother and sister, we learned that they live near Natasha and we would like to know how they divide the territory. We believe they share the same male tiger.

The male tiger's name is Dale. We captured him on November 1, 1995. He weighed a bit more than 200 kg, was powerful and beautiful, judging by the territory he controls and the number of females he has (a minimum of 3 - Kuzia's mother, Natasha and Nadya). He is a threat to all male neighbors. Katherine might also be one of his mates. But on the other hand there may be other males which were not marked by us.

As I have already mentioned we concentrate our field research in a particular place near the river Jiguitovka. After catching Dale in December 1995, we captured an adult female Nadya. Her area is situated on the right bank of the river in the preserve. You cannot call her life easy; the poachers, the hunters, the fishermen, the forest workers. Maybe that is one of the reasons why she has never had cubs though there were signals of her "wedding". She has her own boyfriend Alexis. We caught him in May 1996. We haven't got much information about him yet. But his area overlaps Nadya's territory and the signals from both of them often come from the same place. Dale also visits Nadya sometimes.

Even this brief report can give you an idea of how important and unique the information we managed to collect is. Russian zoologists have never stopped observing and studying the Amur tiger. Tigers have been trailed by many specialists who collected information about the Amur tiger and worked out plans for preserving this precious species. Russians can justly be proud of what has been done along this line. The Amur tiger was on the brink of extinction in the 1930's.

Our efforts could be considered as one more step in the long process of studying the biology of tigers and the inter-relationship between the population of these tigers and their environment. We are aware of the problem and are trying to find the solution of preserving this mighty wild animal.

A number of reports have been made on the basis of our research, at various conferences in the USA, Canada, Japan, Moscow, Khabarovsk, Vladivostok. Some articles have been published in Russian and foreign magazines and journals. At the present time, we are getting ready the publication of book on radio research on the Amur tiger. And, or course, we are continuing field research, sitting around bonfires, flying on helicopters, capturing new tigers to get a fuller picture of their life. There are more questions than answers to them.

We would like to express our sincere appreciation and acknowledgement of support and collaboration, to all those who participated in our research work.


Many thanks to  unknown lady whose translation has been used. As Dr. Smirnov told me, he presented this article a couple years ago on a congress. He also gave me a supplement to it (in Russian) which covers the update of the situation in the project.

Update 1998

As I have already mentioned, the main research was done now in the Jiguitovka river basin, and in December 1995 we caught a female tiger Nadya there. It's home range was located on the right bank of the river, so it's life was not easy: poachers, hunters, anglers and woodcutters nearby. Maybe this is why we couldn't see her cubs - they were killed, eaten or never born.

But when we finally found her cubs a tragedy occurred. In the fall of 1998 we had heard signals from the same area for some time and realized that Nadya gave birth to cubs. When the snow fell down, we found out there were 3 or 4 cubs with her four or five month old.

A month later the tigress was killed by poachers, which were never found. That is the reality. This is a theme for a big and complex discussion. On December 13 1998 it was killed near the carcass of boar, shot by hunters. The hunters came up to the killed boar and saw a striped predator with its fearful canines. Let the God be their judge.

So what to do with three orphaned cubs? The zoos of the world don't need them, the same is true about circuses. The life in cage is not a good choice for anyone. A crazy idea appeared then - what if let them live in nature. They are 6 month old and not so small. Six months more - and they could hunt themselves. They would have no mother to learn it from, but still there would be prey. Not necessarily deer and boar, this could be badgers, raccoons, young ungulates, mice and even frogs. We need to put radio collars on them and wait until the summer. This would be the first and not the most humane experiment. But as these cubs are not needed anywhere and they are not the last, we have to prepare methods of helping survive in the wild. This experiment will require all our professionalism, efforts and big money, and we are ready to begin work.

In a few moths after capturing Nadya (in May 1996) we got collared another tiger in the same home range - this time a male named Alexey. It soon became clear this was a family. That was the Fate. On December 29 1998 this tiger was hit by car, and we had to kill it. So the cubs lost both parents, although we have to make a genetic analysis with samples of blood and tissues from all our tigers to prove the father. Anyway, there was no case of father-tiger raising cubs.

In the end of 1997 we trapped and collared a young female called Luba on the border of Katya-2 and Natasha's ranges. Unfortunately, we lost the signal from this tiger in a few months.

In 1998 in the upper Jiguitovka we trapped an adult male and 2-3 year old female, which was put a space satellite radio collar. We can expect a lot of valuable information from this animal, if the signal will be stable.

To conclude, I have to say that 1998 (a Year of Tiger) was not a lucky year both for us and the tiger. We lost 4 tigers - 2 were killed and the other two missing. But life and our work continue, so we hope that 1999 - a Year of Rabbit or Red Cat - will be more successful.