Nature or nurture? Tiger rehabilitation program provokes debate in Far East

According to the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), 40 tigers are killed in the Far East every year. Source: Vasily Solkin / WWF Russia

According to the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), 40 tigers are killed in the Far East every year. Source: Vasily Solkin / WWF Russia

A special presidential program in Russia’s Far East helps to rehabilitate rare Amur tiger cubs before releasing them back into the wild. However, not everybody agrees with the program, with local WWF specialists arguing that a different approach is required to successfully rear tigers, and even questioning whether it should be done in the first place.

Before crossing the Amur River to Chinese territory, Ustin, the young alpha male Amur tiger, suddenly appeared on the central beach of Khabarovsk. He swam to the center of town from Bolshoi Ussuriysky Island, which borders China, strolled around a little then swam back to the island, where he disappeared beyond the frontier.

Like his brother Kuzya, who has been roaming northern China since October and apparently does not intend to return, Ustin is one of five tigers that were set free according to a presidential program in the beginning of the year. Kuzya was set free by Russian President Vladimir Putin himself.

According to Vyacheslav Rozhnov, director of the presidential program studying rare animal species, who administers the rehabilitation center for tiger cubs in which the five tigers were reared, "the tigers did not escape, they are just mastering new territory," since "the Chinese border does not exist for them."

Regional experts agree that animals, and males especially, must explore their territory and that Ustin can still return to Russia in the winter. However, the fact that the tigers reared in the presidential rehabilitation center show little fear of humans makes WWF (World Wildlife Fund) experts, as well as specialists from the State Non-profit Amur Tiger Society, wonder if the rehabilitation program is doing the right thing.

"If the tiger remains in the forest, then it will be a success," says Pavel Fomenko, WWF coordinator in the Far East. The tigers that approach humans are called "conflicted," and the reason, experts believe, partially lies in the fact that Russia still does not have a single and scientifically credible practice of returning man-reared tigers to nature.

The rehabilitation center

Hunters found the five tiger cubs - Ustin, Borya, Kuzya, Ilona and Svetlaya - in the taiga two springs ago. Poachers had killed their mother and they could have died of hunger or cold. According to the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), 40 tigers are killed in the Far East every year.

The tiger cubs were initially nursed by collaborators from social organizations and were then given to the center for rehabilitation and reintroduction of tigers and rare animal species in the town of Alexeyev in the Primorsky Territory.

"The rehabilitation center is a compound of enormous aviaries that people are not allowed into," says Vyacheslav Rozhnov. The center was financed by the Russian Geographical Society under the presidential program for the study of rare species, which was launched in 2007. The program's operator became the A.N. Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution in Moscow, where Rozhnov is deputy director.

Rozhnov believes that the center's objective is to help the tigers "form a hunter's instinct and relationship to man and to similar animals." According to Rozhnov, the aim "is to nurture and raise them so that they can be returned to the wild."

‘Scientific poaching’

However, some experts have criticized the center’s approach, with Pavel Fomenko, coordinator of the WWF Russia Amur branch for the preservation of biodiversity, describing the center's work as "experiments" on tigers and "scientific poaching."

To illustrate his point, Fomenko describes how live deer were brought to the tigers’ enclosures so that they could learn to hunt and procure their own food.

“But since the deer were brought by car at a certain time and the tigers heard the car,” says Fomenko, “from an early age they developed a strong reaction to cars. Cars mean food. And the first thing the tigers did when they were let loose - they went to the highway."

The tigers that were let loose, according to Fomenko, are "being fed and scared away from the highway," since "one tiger has already attacked a car."

According to Amur Tiger Non-profit Society Director Sergei Aramilev, the principal misbelief is that the rehabilitation's fundamental aim, so to speak, is to teach the tiger to hunt wild animals. Aramilev thinks that the tiger has an innate hunting instinct, which is why in the wild the female does not teach the cubs how to hunt, but just rears them until they reach a size at which they will be able to catch and kill large prey by themselves.

"A tiger that is about two years old is mature and independent," says Aramilev. "That is why the real aim of the rehabilitation should be to have the tiger anxiously fear man's domestic activity, as well as man himself. Only this kind of animal will be successful in the wild."

Zoos or rehabilitation centers

Rozhnov says that it is better to rehabilitate the tiger cubs coming to the center and prepare them for the return to the wild. However, Far East experts believe that the approach to the tigers should be differentiated according to their age.

"The longer the tiger has lived in the wild, the less the probability of its adaptation to people," asserts Aramilev. Like Fomenko from the WWF, Aramilev thinks that "it is much more effective to give tiger cubs under a year old to the zoo and increase the tiger population in captivity rather than spend millions of rubles on rehabilitation in a center with unknown results."

Both tiger experts agree that the situation with rehabilitating tigers can be corrected by developing a state-run method. "The wild tiger can be created from an animal that came to the rehabilitation center at the age of two or three," says Fomenko. "Tigers that were rehabilitated according to this method (the Severtsov Institute - RBTH), on the other hand, don't have any chance of surviving, unfortunately."

"There must be a precise algorithm," says Aramilev. "The tiger cub is three months? Well then, to the zoo. One year? Then to the rehabilitation center. The rehabilitation must be carried out according to a certain program. And so on.

“We must also determine the mechanisms and strengthen the legislation - how and where should we let the tigers go? Who makes the decision and how? Does the place where we let the tiger loose correspond to the conditions in which a tiger can survive? There must be instructions."

 

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