Archive for December, 2009

Just when news is breaking that Chinese poachers are wiping out 10-16% of the critically endangered Siberian tiger population each year, Vladmir Putin’s tiger went missing. Russians had grown to love (or at least geographically track) this female tiger through Putin’s tiger website. But her collar hadn’t pinged in three months, exciting worries of poachers, who are wiping out tigers worldwide. The Siberian tiger (Panthera tigris altaica) is in special trouble from  poachers who use tiger parts for traditional medicine.

But, Putin’s spokesman announced, the only thing that died were the batteries in her collar. She’s fine and so is a cub she had recently. 

Which of Putin’s tigers is this? It’s hard to keep track since Putin has a special relationship with (at least) two tigers. This is the 5-year-old female one he shot with a tranquilizer dart last summer while touring the Usuri Reserve. The other one was a two-month old tiger he got as birthday present.

The first incident with this tiger — it apparently escaped from trap just as Putin approached, was hit by another dart, but not felled till Putin shot her again — prompted speculation that it was a dramatic stunt to show off Putin’s toughness. But no one questions his fondness for tigers, which he sees as a symbol of Russia. While this tiger slept he talked gently with her, shook her paw and then said good-bye by kissing her on the forehead.

It’s certainly good news for the tigers to have Putin as a friend. The Russian Academy of Sciences  (near Vladivostock) is tracking the Siberian or Amur tiger, the world’s largest subspecies of tiger. Once considered a big environmental success story because the population recovered to about 500 from only 50. But now scientists fear the number has dropped down to 300 because of Chinese poachers, who leave explosives smeared with fat for the rare cats to swallow. (As usual, no one is sure about the numbers.)

Putin is going to host a worldwide tiger summit in Vladivostock next year as part of a $1 billion drive with the World Wildlife Foundation to double the world’s tiger population to 6,500 by 2022. The tigers (and even more endangered Amur leopards) live in a tiny area near the Sea of Japan.

Wanna visit? Russian travel agencies do offer a few options–but not the type of ecotourism Americans may be used to with spas and massages. If you don’t get a tip from a park ranger on where a tiger is, this tour guide warns you may have to wait for days in an isolated “hide-out tent” for the tiger to show. Well, at least there’s room for ecotourism to grow to support the Amur Tiger.

Want to see big cats? Here’s an AnimalTourism.com map and guide to places to see lions, tigers and cougars around the globe

Map of Russian Tiger Hotspots

The jaguar photo was contributed by the Russian Academy of Sciences’ permanent exhibition

View AnimalTourism.com Big Cats in a larger map


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Skip about 40 seconds into this video from Wildlife Education and Resource Center and you’ll get to see some grown women dressing up as a giant (though somewhat disheveled) bobcat and playing with a bobcat kitten. The women rub themselves in bark and sticks to get a nice earthy, non-human scent. Then the lucky ladies step into this homemade costume, which has been pre-scented with bobcat urine.

The WERC center in Morgan Hill, CA (near San Jose), pioneered the technique in 1994. It’s all in an effort to prevent the kittens from getting used to the idea of hanging around humans. These lynx turn out fine–as long as they don’t stumble upon a mascot convention.

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When I was in Germany a few weeks ago I got to visit Saarbrücken Wildpark, which confused me. In the middle of a forest were huge pens for native animals. No addmission charge, just come on in, enjoy the animals or the woods. I wondered how this place could survive if the animals weren’t producing food.

“By the way, the animals are not supposed to be eaten!” says Michael Wagner, head of Saarbrucken’s forestry department. All the Germans I mentioned this to were equally appalled at my assumption.

The animals are there neither to be rescued nor eaten, but just for people to enjoy. “The Wildpark is intended as a greenbelt recreation area for the citizens of Saarbrücken, especially for families with children,” he says. They also have a geology-themed trail. Even though the center isn’t set up specifically for animal welfare, they do sometimes take in a few orphans, Wagner says. And they are part of the important project to recover the wisent. Only one herd of the European bison was left in the Polish woods after World War II, but there are now several thousand because of an elaborately managed breeding exchange program across Europe.

View Animaltourism.com Europe in a larger map

It’s fantastic that Germans and other Europeans have recognized that native animals in their natural environment (or a close enough approximation) are just fun to see. I wish we had wildparks here. The wildparks are all over the place. ZooInfos lists 144 native wildlife parks in Germany; 29 in Austria and 16 in Switzerland.

The wildparks each have their own quirky history shaped by historical events and people who either wanted to hunt or preserve a species (or both). Many started as private hunting preserves of the wealthy, then after a war, revolution or gift, they fell to public hands.

France has parc animaler (animal parks), but it doesn’t seem like there are as many (ZoosInfo lists only 15). This Safari Train one lets people see bison and ostrich on the range, then buy their meat.
I’m still a little confused by the new categories. There are zoos, tierparks (translation: zoo), wildparks and native wildlife parks. They have deer parks and vogelpark (birds). And then all kinds of specialty wildparks:
The Neanderthal Wildpark features wisent and two other animals that people have tried to breed back from extinction, the auloch (a primitive cattle breed) and the tarpan (a horse ancestor).

Wildparks like these show that people would love to go see native animals if given the chance.

See more animals in Europe

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The bear who helped T.J. Miller get a role in the upcoming Yogi Bear movie is used to playing the straight man.

“We have taught our animals to look at actors and cameramen as props and to not even focus on them,” says Eric Weld, the owner and trainer at Hollywood Animals. That doesn’t exactly sound like you’ll build up a close rapport, but I guess it beats getting mauled.

About one to four people a month pay the $600 for a personal animal encounter, usually with bears or tigers, Weld says. The animal playdate business is seasonal (winter is slow) and impacted by the economy. Most people are just happy to hang out with the animal (under close supervision of a trainer), take some pictures and offer the animal some treats.

To get the animals used to being around people, they have to be handled from a young age and live in the trainer’s house. That means they’re usually bought from a breeder, Weld says, not that they wouldn’t take a rescue if one came along. “We use affection-training methods as the grow older, after they have had time to be cubs of course,” Weld says. “We believe that the first way to have a relationship with any wild animal is to create a bond with them when they are young and continue that bond through mutual respect and understanding between trainers and animals.”

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Flirty Arigato - SW Bobcat - L. rufus baileyi (Merriam)

Just 20-30  minutes south-east of Atlanta, wildlife rehabilitator Michael Ellis is nursing some dwarf baby squirrels, teaching a great-horned owl independence and giving permanent shelter to a couple bobcats. His outfit, AWARE (Atlanta Wild Animal Rescue Effort), is the biggest wildlife rehab center so close to such a big city  I’ve seen.

Ellis, whose been rehabbing wildlife for two decades, says having big Route 20 nearby is crucial. You ride a few miles off the highway through farmland and the Arabia Mountain National Heritage Area and you’re at Aware, which looks like a house with an extensive kennel system. If you serve animals, why  be near a city? Most wildlife injuries involve people (or their cars or cats). But more importantly, the best way to help animals is to teach people how not to kill them.

“I could spend 45 days saving one opossum or 45 minutes with one class of 30 kids and end up saving 1,000 animals over their lifetime,” Ellis says. The grim truth of wildlife rehab is that–except for maybe a few endangered species–its broad impact on animal populations is pretty much nothing. Squirrels and starlings are in no danger of going extinct. “But it makes a big difference to that one animal,” says Ellis. And each of the animal treated impacting the people who find them or learn about them at the center. That’s why Aware wants to reach every kid in Atlanta.

A few of those that can’t make in the wild live out their time at Aware. A local bulldozed a bobcat den, then decided to raise the cub instead of letting the mom retrieve it. The small shy cat hid in his house while I was there. Meanwhile a much bigger and bolder bobcat, Arigato, preened. He’s a southwestern subspecies that someone tried to raise in Georgia as a pet. Lauren Satterfield, a volunteer who hopes to study wildlife conflicts, says ill-treated Arigato is surprisingly friendly.  Indeed, the big cat is absolutely flirty. A big ham, he nuzzled up to the fence, then turned his butt towards me. Much to my surprise, he sprayed me with his pee. All over. In bobcat world, I think Arigato now owns me; he was incredibly pleased with himself, lolling around showing off his spotted belly afterwards. A few flightless owls clicked their beaks at me. I don’t speak owl, but I’m pretty sure they were showing me that they are tough guys. Most patients are transients and never see the public so they won’t get too comfortable around people. Every fall Aware seems to get a batch of gray squirrels that have fallen out of trees that are about half the normal size and suffer from a skin rash.

Ellis modestly describes Aware as too small, but it seems to me better equipped and organized than most vet offices I’ve seen. Each animal gets an intake form and individual care, with a view to being released near where it was found. Although Aware meets the technical space requirements of each species, they’d like to give unreleasable tenants a bigger space and more natural and interesting daily life. “When it comes to permanent residents, they deserve the best,” Ellis says.

Sometimes they have to turn down requests from wildlife officials for big animals like bears that they don’t have the capacity to care for well–yet. That’s part of the reason they’re planning on adding 5,000 square feet of facilities over the next few years–provided they get the donations.

Donate to Aware
Find other places to see wildlife down south

Fun Facts: Even in good ole boy Georgia, wildlife watchers outnumber hunters about four to one.

Georgia Residents: 
1.1 million fishermen
481,000 hunters
2 million wildlife watchers

Non-Residents Enjoying Wildlife in Georgia:
136,000 fishermen
136,000 hunters
183,000 wildlife watchers

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