Dale Miquelle: Saving Tigers in the Russian Far East

23 September 2014 | Wildlife Conservation Society News Release

NEW YORK – Dale Miquelle, Director for the WCS Russia Program and a leading researcher on Amur (Siberian) tigers, recently sat down with WCS colleagues to share these insights about his work in the Russian Far East.

Q: What is your focus in the Russian Far East and can you tell us more about where you are stationed and how long you have been there?

DM: I have been in the Russia since 1992. The Siberian tiger is actually misnamed, as it actually occurs almost exclusively in an area of Russia called the “Far East.” From my house in the small village of Terney, I look out on the Sea of Japan, and behind me I am surrounded by tiger habitat stretching hundreds of kilometers to the west. When I first arrived here, our goal was to better understand the ecological needs of Siberian tigers so that we might know how better to save them. Our “pure research” project has evolved into a broad-ranging conservation program to conserve tigers and the landscape that they depend upon, and to find and train young Russians to carry on this work.

Q: With whom do you partner?

DM: All work is conducted in partnerships with Russian governmental departments, Russian scientific institutes and universities, and other NGOs such as ourselves. The partnerships are vital – there is no sense in conducting conservation or research programs if we don’t have the interest and support of our Russian colleagues.

Q: What is your background? How did you end up doing conservation in the Russian Far East?

DM: Half way through my undergraduate education I turned away from a degree in English literature to Biology due to my keen interest in wildlife. I eventually got my Ph.D. at the University of Idaho studying moose in Alaska, but prior to that I spent a pivotal year working for another Ph.D. student studying tigers in Nepal. That experience changed my life. When an opportunity came up to join a team attempting to study Siberian tigers in Russia, even though the chances of success were remote, I couldn’t pass it up. I made a promise to stay three years, and have never left.

Q: How is the tiger population – is it growing, is it steady or is it declining?

DM: The trends in the Siberian tiger population have changed dramatically over the past 70 years – and until recently, mostly for the good. Siberian tigers almost disappeared from Russia due to intensive hunting – in the 1940s there were an estimated 20-40 individuals left. Hunting was prohibited in 1947, and the tiger population recovered to possibly over 500 by the late 1980s. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1992, political chaos and an economic collapse forced people in the small villages to exploit local natural resources.

In the Russian Far East that meant, among other things, shooting and selling tiger parts. The tiger population plummeted for a few years until new anti-poaching teams could be deployed with the help of international organizations. Tiger numbers stabilized until about 2005, when re-organizations of the wildlife departments (as well as other parts of the Russian government) reduced the numbers of wildlife inspectors, which resulted in another increase in poaching and another decline in tigers. Today, we are unsure how many tigers remain in the Russian Far East, but suspect there to be about 350. A count this coming winter should shed some light on this question.

Q: What are the biggest threats to tigers?

DM: Poaching of tigers and their prey, as well as habitat loss, are the three key drivers of extinction for tigers. We’ve got to control all three if we are to save tigers.

Q: What are you doing that is most successful in saving tigers?

DM: In Russia, poaching of tigers and their prey are the two primary threats, so our focus is on improving law enforcement efforts in the protected areas that hold tigers to ensure there are strong source populations of tigers in the Russian Far East. This is not a simple process, but we are seeing results.

Q: Are you working to protect other species, besides tigers?

DM: Yes. By protecting habitat for tigers, we are of course protecting habitat for many other species. But we do have specific projects focused on other endangered or rare species. We have studied bears of the Far East – both the Himalayan black bear and the brown bear (similar to the grizzly in North America). We have a team studying the ecology of Blakiston’s fish owl – an amazing bird. It is the largest owl in the world, is endemic to Northeast Asia and dependent on finding openings in the river ice in winter to catch small fish. Protecting riverine habitat is critical to their survival.

We are also currently focusing on musk deer – a mysterious and ancient tiny deer that eats lichens all winter, and is heavily poached because its musk glands are in high demand for production of perfumes. And of course, we have spent much effort trying to protect the last population of the rarest big cat in the world – the Amur leopard, which also occurs only in a small region along the Russian-Chinese border. With any luck, we will be starting a reintroduction program for Amur leopards in the near future.

Q: What are some of the most important tech tools you use in your work? Drones? Camera traps? Other tech tools?

DM: Right now we are using GPS collars to monitor the fate of six young tigers, brought into captivity as cubs when their mothers were killed (likely from poaching). These youngsters were raised in the absence of humans and learned how to hunt, and were then released in a region that historically had tigers, but which was empty. The collars send back information on their locations every day, allowing us to monitor their movements, confirm that they are successfully making kills like wild tigers normally do, and not getting into trouble with humans.

We are also making extensive use of camera traps, which allow us to accurately count numbers of tigers in areas where we work, and to monitor the fate of individual tigers over time. Video cameras, now becoming more and more effective, are providing us glimpses of Siberian tiger behavior in the wild that we have never seen before.

Q: What advice would you give someone who wanted to go into field conservation?

DM: Study hard in school. Learn your biology, but go beyond that. Most successful conservationists are excellent communicators, know how to work with people, and know how to find common grounds with people who have completely different interests. Today, it’s not enough to be a good biologist. In fact, it’s more important to know how to work with people.

Q: What advice would you give someone who wanted to work in the conservation discipline in the Russian Far East?

DM: Learn Russian, learn Russian, and learn more Russian.

For more information about endangered species go to Bagheera.com
Find organizations saving endangered species at Saving Endangered Species.com
For more information about endangered tigers go to Tigers In Crisis.com
Find organizations saving endangered tigers at Saving Endangered Tigers.com

Saving Endangered Tigers is Produced by Endangered Species Journalist Craig Kasnoff

to Promote the Plight of Endangered Tigers and the Efforts to Save Them.