Photo courtesy of Land of the Leopard National Park
Photo courtesy of Land of the Leopard National Park

New photographs of tiger cubs in the wilds of Siberia indicate that conservation efforts to save Russian President Vladimir Putin’s favorite animal are bearing fruit. For the first time, scientists have been able to observe this awesome predator from infancy.

Unique images of an Amur tigress and her three one-and-a-half-month-old cubs were captured by employees of the Land of the Leopard National Park in Russia’s Far East, in November and December. The Amur tiger – also known as the Siberian tiger and (on the Korean peninsula, where it is extinct) the Korean tiger – is the largest living tiger on earth, but is also one of the rarest species.

The frames of the tigress and her cubs were captured via special photo-traps installed by scientists in the park. The positioning of the cameras turned out to be ideal: they were right next to the site the tigress later chose as the spot for her den. The family appeared in front of the cameras almost every day for a month and more than 2,500 unique images were captured.

“During their first few months, small cubs don’t venture outside the den as they are unable to follow the mother,” Maria Okulova, head of public relations at the Land of the Leopard, told Asia Times. “As such, very little of their early life has been studied; therefore, these shots are a real rarity. They hold great value for scientists.”

The pictures capture the daily life of the young tiger family. The cubs begin exploring their surroundings, play and fight with each other, and cuddle up to their mother. These intimate scenes are valuable for animal research, according to experts.

“The information we sourced helps us to estimate the reproduction conditions of the Amur tiger population,” said a senior researcher at the park, Dina Matyukhina. “We gain insights into the timing of birth, the size of the litter, their survival skills at birth, and so forth.”

The images will help to fill in gaps in knowledge about the animals. “This photo material also helps us to paint a picture of the way the tiger family behaves inside the den, such as during what time of day and night they are most active, how often the tigress appears at the den and how long she spends with her offspring,” Matyukhina explained. “Also, we see how the cubs behave in their mother’s absence.”

Photo courtesy of Land of the Leopard National Park

Action revealed by the images includes the tigress bringing home captured prey – in this case, the carcass of a deer – which tells scientists that, at just a few weeks old, Amur tiger cubs are already beginning to eat meat along with their main source of nutrition, their mother’s milk.

As the cubs grow stronger, the family starts to appear less often in the region of the den. Weeks later, they were sighted by photo-traps at another location. “This proved that changing their place of residence is a natural process in the world of cats,” according to Land of the Leopard’s findings.

The park’s Head of Research, Yevgeniya Bisikalova, notes that the Amur tiger is one of the most important components in the forest ecosystem in southwestern Primorsky Krai, as it sits at the top of the food chain. Study and conservation of the species is therefore vital for the stability of the region’s ecosystem, she says.

Photo courtesy of Land of the Leopard National Park

“In the south-west of the Primorsky area, there is a separate grouping of the Amur tiger, which differs from the rest of the species mainly through genetic features,” Bisikalova told Asia Times. “It is important to understand what can threaten this tiger population and in what state it is. Therefore every snapshot of a tiger made by photo-traps is of considerable value to scientists.”

The Amur tiger is the northernmost subspecies of the tiger inhabiting the Far East of Russia and China. It is listed in the Red Book of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and in the Russian Red Book.

According to the Wildlife Conservation Society, its wild population hit a low of some 40 animals in the 1940s due to legal hunting in the 19th century. The tigers were picked off for their fur, bones and other parts that were used in traditional Chinese medicine.

Just as harmful was the hunting of smaller forest animals, such as deer and boar, the tigers’ natural prey. Logging, often carried out illegally, and urban development, further dented populations. And during the economic chaos of the Boris Yeltsin years in Russia, rich individuals paid premium prices to hunt in Siberia, taking pot shots at wildlife with sniper rifles from the comfort of carpeted armored personnel carriers.

Photo courtesy of Land of the Leopard National Park

The survival of the species has been championed by Putin for at least a decade, however: he has tried to present an environmentally-friendly stance and enforce conservation in the face of rampant poaching and loss of habitat. As a result, the Amur tiger population has risen by some 20% in the last decade and a half.

Today’s Russia is home to about 530 Amur tigers. Some 30 have been spotted in the Land of the Leopard, where the species shares top billing with the Amur leopard, of which there are around 70 on the protected territory.

The park was established five years ago by the federal government. Besides Land of the Leopard, its domain also includes the state natural biosphere reserve Kedrovaya Pad, which is the oldest reserve in the Far East and part of the UNESCO World Network of Biosphere Reserves.

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