SIKHOTE-ALIN NATURE MONUMENT, Russia – Volya is one of the most endangered animals on the planet – a Siberian tiger, huge cats that roam the snowy mountainous terrain of Russia’s Far East and northeast China.
The tigers are part of a unique ecosystem that faces a new threat: a toxic benzene slick headed toward the Amur River after an explosion upriver at a chemical factory in China.
The World Wide Fund for Animals considers the area a “high-priority conservation region.”
The river basin also is home to leopards, bears, musk deer and dozens of types of fish. But the animal that most symbolizes the Far East is the Siberian tiger, known here as the Amur tiger and a common feature on government emblems.
Volya, whose mother was killed by poachers, is one of two tigers being cared for at the Wild Animals Rehabilitation Center at the Sikhote-Alin Nature Monument, a 12,850-acre preserve 85 miles southeast of the regional capital, Khabarovsk.
Nearly dead when she was brought here with a shattered jaw in January, her struggle to survive earned the cub the name Volya, which means “will” in Russian – as in “will to live,” said the center’s director, Eduard Kruglov.
Kruglov’s late father, Vladimir, a former tiger hunter who captured more than 40 animals for zoos and circuses, founded the animal center 12 years ago. Its first inhabitant was Lutiy, a Siberian tiger whose tame nature belies the meaning of his name: “savage beast.” Lutiy also was brought to the center after falling victim to poachers; he got a titanium tooth implant to help him eat his weekly diet of 450 pounds of meat.
About 430-540 Siberian tigers remain in the wild in Russia, according to a census conducted this year by the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society and other groups, who sent out some 1,000 field workers to count paw prints in the snow. The tigers were once even closer to extinction – in the 1940s, there were only 40 wild tigers, according to the World Wide Fund for Wildlife.
The benzene spill likely won’t directly affect the tigers unless they drink from the tainted river, and that is unlikely, said John Goodrich, field coordinator for Wildlife Conservation Society’s Siberian Tiger Project.
However, Kruglov noted that the food chain could be affected by the spill and impact the tigers: birds eat fish from the tainted river, and tigers could be sickened by eating birds. Fish traveling the Amur and back down tributaries could spread chemicals across the region.
Still, the greatest threats tigers face are hunters who sell their pelts or other body parts for use in traditional Chinese medicines and encroachment on their habitat by human development and logging.
“Communism was good for tigers because the borders were closed and there was no market for tigers,” said Goodrich, who was visiting Monday to assist in Volya’s exam.
The tiger population has apparently stabilized, with this year’s count showing the same numbers of animals as in 1996, a positive sign attributed to anti-poaching efforts and creation of protected areas.
Getting a tiger to say “ahh” requires more than the usual persuasion. For the exam, a tranquilizer dart calms Volya so she can be removed from her cage and laid on a table – eyes wide open, tongue hanging out, her single remaining canine tooth showing.
Like Lutiy, Volya’s dental problems mean she could never survive in the wild. However, the center has previously freed more than 100 bears after nursing them back to health.
Kruglov said he was pessimistic about the animals’ future in the wake of the latest chemical spill, as the Amur is already heavily polluted.
“There are too many factories in China,” he said. This latest accident “won’t be the last.”