To follow rare Amur tiger, U.S.-Russian team tunes in Radio tracking promotes survival

August 31, 1993|By New York Times News Service

TERNEI, Russia -- It is nearly impossible to spot an Amur tiger from the cockpit of a Soviet crop-duster, the only airplane available for this scientific mission. But Dr. Yevgeny Smirnov, a wildlife biologist, has spent 23 years tracking tigers in the taiga and knew just where to start looking.

As the AN-2 glided over the rounded mountains along Russia's Pacific coast, he signaled to the pilot with one hand and with the other flipped through the frequencies of a radio receiver. Tuning in Kolya, a 2-year-old male, Dr. Smirnov shouted over the engine, "He's moving!"

After landing two hours later he explained: "That's important. We want to be sure the collar hasn't been tossed in a bush and his hide isn't hanging on someone's wall."

Bearing Russian names and American-made radio collars, Kolya and five other Amur tigers are the focus of a three-year, $500,000 joint mission to save the largest and most endangered tiger from extinction.

Four subspecies, Bali, Javan, Chinese and Caspian, are already believed to have vanished from the wild. Among the four remaining subspecies, the snow-hardy Amur tiger, also called the Siberian tiger, could be next. Only about 250 to 500 Amur tigers still stalk the southeast corner of Russia. About 30 of them live on the research site, the Sikhote-Alinsk Nature Reserve, 1,350 square miles of taiga north of Vladivostok.

At a smaller research site just south of Vladivostok, another research team is studying the endangered Amur leopard. Funds for both projects and an anti-poaching program come to almost one million dollars from the Exxon Corp., the National Geographic Society, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the National Wildlife Federation. The Hornocker Wildlife Research Institute, a private, nonprofit organization established in 1986 at the University of Idaho to study endangered cats, oversees the work.

Using population models that take into account the low birth rate of the Amur tiger, about two or three cubs a year, and other factors, population geneticists determined that a minimum of 50 tigers are needed to prevent inbreeding on the Sikhote-Alinsk reserve. A project leader, Howard Quigley, a wildlife biologist at Frostburg State University in Maryland, says 500 may be needed to ensure the tiger's survival.

Before anything can be done to increase the population, the American and Russian scientists must tangle with some puzzling questions about the Amur tiger, distinguished from other subspecies by its white beard, thick coat and wide paws for traveling in snow. The most critical issue is whether the population went through a genetic bottleneck in the 1920s and 1930s, when Russian hunters left fewer than 50.

This fall, the National Cancer Institute in Frederick, Md., will begin testing the 14 to 15 tissue and blood samples collected from Amur tigers at the site to determine if the gene pool is diverse enough to ensure the subspecies' survival. There is a chance that the tigers are too closely related to breed successfully.

BTC Another question the 10-member team is trying to answer: How much land does an Amur tiger need? Early results indicate that an adult female may control as much as 80 to 160 square miles and males 230 to 300 square miles. That is almost five times the territory required by the Bengal tiger in India, where food is more plentiful than in Siberia.

This summer two biology students from Moscow State University using radio receivers have been tracking the test animals and listening every five minutes to see if the animals are at rest or moving, information the team needs to help Russia save the tigers. This is the first time Amur tigers are being studied using radio tracking and the only time the tigers have been observed year-round.

"Russians are limited because of their technology," says Mr. Quigley. "They don't know much outside of what tigers do during the winter months when they can track them in the snow."

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