[This story originally published at Scientific American]
What does the fairy tale Cinderella have to do with Global Tiger Day? Quite a lot, if that story is about the wild Amur (or Siberian) tiger named Cinderella (“Zolushka” in Russian). Hers is a tale of hope — and one that provides a blueprint for the future of tigers across Asia.
Zolushka was one of six tigers cubs released in the forests of the Priamur, a region in Russia’s Far East, in 2013 and 2014. Zolushka’s story mimics Cinderella’s, complete with tragic upbringing and near-miraculous transformation with the arrival of a prince.
This tigress was found by hunters in 2012 as a three-month-old cub, alone and starving in the December snows, her mother likely killed by poachers. They wrapped the emaciated cub in a coat and hurried her to a rehabilitation center, where Zolushka received emergency treatment, including amputation of the tip of her frostbitten tail. She was kept in a forested enclosure, away from human contact, for about a year as she learned to hunt. At last she was taken to the Priamur and returned to the forest.
To the surprise of many, Zolushka thrived in her new home. But she lived a lonely life, even by tiger standards, without a neighbor for hundreds of kilometers. The release site was not random: The Priamur had largely been without tigers for decades, with only occasional sightings of solitary animals likely dispersing from the primary tiger population in the Sikhote-Alin Mountains to the east. By releasing Zolushka here, conservationists hoped to “seed” a new population to restore historical tiger habitat.
Cinderella’s tale of hope provides a blueprint for the future of tigers across Asia.
In early 2015 a set of male tiger tracks were found in the snow alongside Zolushka’s — it was her new-found prince. Then, after 10 months of anxious waiting, the Zolushka experiment paid off: A single, grainy photograph showed two cubs frolicking in pillows of fresh snow under an enormous Korean pine, with Zolushka austerely watching the forest for danger. This image, definitive proof of the first pitter-patter of tiger cubs in the Priamur in decades, caused celebration across the conservation community. This was a rare (and much needed) example of a successful conservation story.
Tigers vanished from the Priamur region for a reason. Overhunting of prey species such as deer and wild boar as well as hunting tigers themselves were the primary culprits. Declines in habitat quality, including intensive logging of Korean pine trees, a cornerstone of the ecosystem due to the nourishing pine nuts they produced for prey species, brought the end of tigers there.
But now, thanks to improved antipoaching efforts, prey populations are recovering, and a moratorium on logging Korean pine is a sign that things are getting better. In fact, just a few months ago one of the other six “founder” tigers, a female named Svetlaya, was photographed with a young cub of her own. Zolushka was no fluke, tigers are indeed recovering in a landscape where they disappeared more than 40 years ago.
Although Zolushka’s story is one of perseverance and survival, as we approach Global Tiger Day on July 29, many doubt a fairy tale like Cinderella is relevant to the plight of today’s tigers. A century ago there were an estimated 100,000 tigers in the forests of Asia. Today fewer than 3,500 remain, with an equally daunting loss of 97 percent of their habitat.
Tigers’ homes are being lost to a burgeoning human population and booming economic development in Asia. Some believe it is too late for tigers in the wild. We disagree, and we have examples of success to back up this optimism. In the 1970s people predicted the end of tigers in Nagarhole National Park in India. Today the park is connected to a vast network of protected areas and managed forests that collectively hold a population of more than 300 tigers.
Zolushka has shown us that if you provide the minimum necessities — a safe haven, adequate prey, and sufficient space — tigers can recolonize lost habitats.
Although tigers have nearly disappeared from Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, in Thailand tiger numbers are increasing as animals disperse from Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary — a model for efficient protection and management of a natural ecosystem — into the adjacent forest. In Nepal tiger numbers are increasing as they use ecological corridors to move back and forth between Indian and Nepalese “safe zones.”
In all these places the recipe for success in tiger conservation is similar: First, there is an unblinking commitment to protected areas to act as “source sites” — safe havens for wildlife where poaching and habitat destruction are not tolerated. At the same time, because tigers require so much space for viable populations, these source sites must be connected via ecological corridors and multiple-use forests in which tigers can not only move between protected areas but also find space to survive and even breed outside protected areas. These are the places where tigers and humans must learn to live together.
There are 76 potential tiger landscapes that include more than 42 source sites in Asia identified by conservation groups as salvageable for tigers. Not all these places hold tigers now but most still have the potential. Zolushka has shown us that if you provide the minimum necessities — a safe haven, adequate prey, and sufficient space — tigers can recolonize such lost habitats.
We believe that if we can recover those tiger landscapes fully, 30,000 tigers could thrive in Asia — that’s as many tigers in Asia as there are lions in Africa. This does not require allocating new lands to conservation — just a full commitment of lands that already exist. The total area, 425,000 square miles, represents less than 3 percent of the Asian landmass. In addition to tigers, those lands will protect the wider biodiversity of Asia and provide both clean water and unlimited resources to the people who live in and around such landscapes.
There is one more lesson to be learned from Zolushka’s tale. Success in her recovery, teaching her how to live like a wild tiger, selecting a release site, organizing the release and monitoring her progress was possible because multiple governmental and nongovernmental entities threw aside differences to work for a common good. If we can do this for one individual tiger, surely we can do this for the species.
Originally published at blogs.scientificamerican.com on July 28, 2017.