Marylanders 'collar' 6 rare Siberians

SAVE THAT TIGER!

February 16, 1993|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,Staff Writer

FROSTBURG -- When Howard and Kathy Quigley of Cumberland arrived in Russia last winter to help launch a study of the Siberian tiger, they faced a bigger challenge than the prospect of daytime temperatures hovering near zero and weeks slogging through snowy forests.

No one had ever captured and tranquilized a Siberian, Earth's largest cat, then tracked it by radio.

"Polar bears and grizzly bears are actually easier to get," said Dr. Howard Quigley, 40, a professor at Frostburg State University who specializes in the study of large predators. "They live in relatively open habitat, and the capture techniques are well known and proven."

But the elusive Siberians roam the forested slopes of the rugged Sikhote-Alin mountains along the Sea of Japan, where the trees grow in dense thickets.

Learning how best to snare the tiger in that woody maze, Howard Quigley said, took his seven-member team of Russian and American scientists months of shadowing the animals.

Dr. Kathy Quigley, 41, Howard's wife and the tiger project's veterinarian, said previous research suggested Siberian tigers might get seizures when sedated. So she concocted a safe sleeping potion, testing it on tigers at a U.S. zoo.

Planning and patience paid off.

So far the team, co-directed by Howard Quigley and Dr. Maurice Hornocker of the Wildlife Research Institute of Idaho, has placed radio collars on six wild tigers.

The researchers also rescued two cubs whose mother apparently had been killed by poachers.

Ultimately, the scientists hope their work will keep Panthera tigris altaica from disappearing from the Russian forest, or taiga.

"We're trying to make sure there's a wild place for these animals other than a 30 foot-by-30 foot space in zoos around the world," Howard Quigley said.

In January 1992, the Quigleys arrived in Blogadotna, which means "paradise," an abandoned fishing village inside the 1,360-square mile Sikhote-Alin Biosphere Reserve.

They and other team members began trekking along the frigid mountain trails, staking out the tigers' freshly killed prey and setting steel cable leg traps -- devices that do not injure the animals.

The tigers are pussycats, researchers say, more likely to avoid than attack a human. But earlier this year, Howard Quigley said, a poacher was reportedly killed by a Siberian near the reserve. "Score one for the tigers," he added.

On a sunny, 5-degree day last February, after six weeks of tracking, the Russian-American team snared its first tiger.

Taking aim with a long-barreled pistol, Howard Quigley -- who has tracked jaguars in the Brazilian rain forest and mountain lions in Idaho, -- shot the animal with a tranquilizer dart prepared by his wife.

Kathy Quigley took blood samples from the panting Siberian, a ** female about 14 months old. The team clamped a radio collar on the animal.

Russian field technicians gawked at the legendary predator, lying dopey and docile in the dry grass.

"The thing that they found most fascinating was that the animal just woke up and walked off into the woods," Howard Quigley recalled.

They called the tiger Olga, after a Russian scientist who bragged that the team could never catch a Siberian. The next day, the people of Terney, a town of about 5,000 souls next to the reserve, staged a caviar-and-salmon banquet honoring the American veterinarian.

"Kathy became this instant hero," Howard Quigley said. "There were toasts to this American woman who performed magic out in the woods."

"There was lots of vodka," said Kathy Quigley with a rueful smile.

It wasn't until June that the researchers caught their next tiger, a 252-pound, pregnant female they named Lena. In September, Lena's pattern of movement changed, suggesting she had given birth. Four cubs were later observed. In late November, Lena's radio signal stopped moving. The team located her radio collar, sliced in half, under five inches of snow next to a reserve road.

Her cubs were a few hundred yards away. Two soon died of congenital defects that Kathy Quigley fears could have been the result of inbreeding in the tiny population.

"We were devastated," she said.

Lena's two surviving cubs were too young to release. Because animals are malnourished in Russian zoos, both the Americans and Russians agreed that the cubs should be taken to the United States.

Environmental officials in Moscow approved, but local customs officials balked, demanding everything in writing. A prosecutor called about a rumor that the Quigleys had hired a poacher to kill Lena so they could steal her cubs.

As they dealt with red tape, the Quigleys had to pen the aggressive, 50-pound animals in an empty fifth-floor apartment in the city of Khabarovsk for two nights.

"Dealing with 100 pounds of wild tigers in a city of 400,000 people was not fun," Kathy Quigley recalled.

For an Aeroflot flight, the Quigleys put the cubs into separatdog carriers, put them on the rear seats of the jet and covered them with cloths.

"They howled and yowled at each other during the whole flight," Kathy Quigley said.

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