Monday, January 24, 2005
Ruby prefers Mill Mountain to Siberia
Tiger census seeks to save Siberians
Friday's snow flurries perturbed at least one star of Roanoke's Mill Mountain Zoo - Ruby.
"She's a little princess," said general curator David Wood. "She doesn't want to go outside in the snow."
As an Amur tiger, commonly known as Siberian tigers, Ruby should not be troubled by the snow, Wood agrees, but he attributes it to her personality.
Ruby's lineage has been in question since her arrival at the zoo in 1990. Originally kept near Danville as a pet, the zoo took in Ruby after the state confiscated her. Wood said it is likely she is an Amur tiger, but there is no paperwork to prove it.
Now almost 18 years old, Ruby is an icon at the zoo. According to Wood, there are adults who remember going to the zoo to see Ruby during their school days and children now insist on seeing "Ruby-tiger."
Wood said her arrival brought to light the plight of exotic animals kept as pets. He said the 1990 campaign that built her a larger home brought her more attention.
"She's a very familiar animal," he said.
People outside the Roanoke Valley can become familiar with her too. Ruby's picture is on the American Zoo and Aquarium Association's Web site in its photo gallery.
Her next step toward fame is lending her name to the zoo's future tiger exhibit. The Ruby Tiger Rescue Center will house three or four tigers, Wood said, although they may not be Amur tigers. The AZA, of which the zoo is a member, may recommend the zoo breed another tiger species. There are no plans to build until the zoo raises the necessary money.
For now, however, Ruby seems happy to be the only tiger at the zoo. Wood said tigers are not social, but Ruby enjoys the attention she gets as the zoo's resident big cat.
"She's a ham," Wood said. "She always seems to pose when there's a camera around."
Tiger census seeks to save
The last time Siberian tigers were counted the number had declined
By James Brooke
The New York Times
NEZHINO, Russia -- In winter, the gray hills of birch, ash and oak near the Chinese border here could be Vermont: cold, leafless and seemingly empty. But then the difference can be seen marching up a hillside: fist-size prints of the Siberian tiger, the world's largest tiger species and the only one to coexist with snow.
"He was hunting here yesterday morning," Dimitri Pikunov, a Russian biologist, said on a recent day, trusting his tracking skills sufficiently not to look over his shoulder. These powerful cats, averaging 6 feet in length and weighing 300 pounds, often attack from behind, silently sneaking up on their prey.
He was having trouble with the noise of the snow, added Pikunov, Russia's leading tiger specialist, studying deer tracks and then plunging his boot through the snow crust, breaking the silence of the woods.
Finding tiger tracks in the snow will be the goal of 1,000 conservationists and their allies who, during two days in February, are to fan through a Maine-size chunk of the Russian Far East, conducting the first census in a decade of this tiger, Asia's largest predator.
On the surface, the recent history of the Amur or Siberian tiger is a success story. In 1940, after a century of hunters shooting adults for their skins and capturing cubs for circuses and zoos, the population of Siberian tigers, found only in this region, had fallen to about 30, the brink of extinction. But postwar bans on hunting and trapping allowed the population to rebound.
Biologists recently concluded that there was a peak of about 600 tigers in 1990; a census in 1995-96 showed a decline, to 450.
Since then, there have been fears that the population has been diminished further. With the fall of Communism, tigers, along with other wildlife here, have been hurt by the collapse of Soviet controls on hunting and trade and an explosion in Chinese demand for wildlife delicacies and traditional medicines. Chinese buy frogs, bear paws, wild ginseng, deer antlers and other parts.
Chinese poachers either come across the border, 10 miles west of here, or, more likely, contract with Russian hunters eager to increase their meager incomes.
As evidenced by the dead tigress found in a Chinese snare near here in November, the top cat regularly loses out to the top primate.
"The Chinese set a price, the hunters receive an order" in this underground trade, Pikunov said, peering through the cracked windshield of his secondhand Toyota Land Cruiser, struggling to negotiate snowy ruts on the forest road a three-hour drive southwest of Vladivostok.
For a tiger "the Chinese are paying the same price of a new Russian jeep," he said, adding that a sting operation broke up one group led by a Russian police colonel. But in a collision of values, an international movement is strengthening Russian resolve to save the tiger, which recently ranked at the top of an international survey of people's favorite animals. A coalition of a dozen wildlife groups is financing eight antipoaching tiger teams, paying for jeeps, gasoline, uniforms and tracking dogs. To fight corruption among team members, the salaries are set at a comfortable level for rural Russia, $5,000 a year.
International aid will also help finance the tiger census, Feb. 8 to 10. Volunteers will fan out along 600 known tiger routes, checking for the distinctive four-claw paw prints.
"This is the only part of the world where you can count tiger tracks in the snow," Pikunov said later over tea, heated over a streamside campfire. This spring, foreigners are to come here on the first “tiger tour,” an effort to support tiger conservation through eco-tourism.
The tiger is not universally popular, however, in the Russian Far East, a rural area that is the last redoubt of this muscular predator that once ranged over the Korean peninsula and northern China.
Every year, one or two Russians are killed by tigers, generally animals that are famished because they have been hurt or shot. Dogs and livestock disappear so often that tiger protection groups have a program to reimburse owners.
"It is a scary, big animal that can kill a person like a mouse," said Pavel Fomenko, who runs the tiger protection program here for WWF Russia.
But this svelte mix of beauty and danger also provokes fascination.
"We saw a tiger coming out of our barn last year," Sergei Yurchenko, a 56-year-old farmer in Sergeyevka, said recently, enjoying the wide-eyed attention of his 10-year-old grandson visiting from Vladivostok. "We didn't bother it. It didn't bother us. The dog was scared."
People here grew up hearing tales of tigers eating construction workers on the Trans-Siberian Railroad. A recent headline in the English-language edition of Vladivostok News announced: "Tiger Chows on Cows."
"There are too many tigers," Victor Gorchakov, the Maritime region's vice governor for international economic affairs, said recently. "There is not enough food, so they eat dogs and attack people."
Although the tiger is the official emblem of the city, he said, "People were debating whether we should shoot some tigers to decrease their number, catch some for the zoos, so we wouldn't forget what they look like."
But not everyone agrees, and some conservationists say attitudes are improving toward tigers and leopards. Outside Gorchakov's window one September Sunday, about 10,000 schoolchildren and their parents were celebrating the fifth annual "Tiger Day," with leopard and tiger face painting and teenagers cavorting in tiger costumes.
Eighty percent of the 3.6 million people of Russia's Pacific region live in cities. But there are 55,000 registered hunters.
"When you get hunters together, it's not very long before they start telling tiger tales," said Dale Miquelle, an American biologist of large carnivores. Referring to the Siberian forest, he said, "It is part of their lore of the taiga, the one that got away, the one that almost got them."
With Russian attitudes changing, Miquelle's group, the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society, is working on the core challenge, China.
In a breakthrough, Chinese authorities inaugurated in 2001 the Hunchun Tiger-Leopard Reserve, 472 square miles of tiger habitat directly across the border. Chinese rangers removed 6,000 snares from the area. Russian tigers are leaping the 6-foot international border fence to hunt sika deer and boar on the Chinese side.
The next step, conservationists say, is to turn off Chinese demand for imported wildlife products. They are working with schools of traditional Chinese medicine, to identify substitutes for tiger oil and tiger wine.
‘‘They have found a rodent whose bones have the same properties,’’ Miquelle said. ‘‘But can you convince Chinese to take a rat bone for a tiger bone?’’
Commonly known as Siberian tigers, although most of them living in the wild live in eastern Russia.
The largest of the tiger subspecies: males can be almost 11 feet long and weigh up to 660 pounds and females are usually 8.5 feet long and can weigh up to 370 pounds.
Distinct because of its pale coloring and ruff of white fur around the neck.
Has brown rather than black stripes.
The primary prey is elk or wild boar.
Hunted for their body parts, which are used in traditional Chinese medicine; and for their pelts.
Numbers are also in decline because of habitat loss.