Dr. Tara Harris, Director of Conservation and Tiger Species Survival Plan Coordinator, is visiting the Amur tiger and leopard conservation projects the Minnesota Zoo supports in the Russian Far East. 

The Tiger Conservation Campaign that I coordinate supports two projects in the Russian Far East – anti-poaching efforts and a Tiger Health Support Program.  For my last two days in the Russia, I’m meeting with people in the regional capital of Vladivostok who are involved with these efforts.

Poaching of tigers and their prey is the number one threat to Amur tigers.  Figuring out how to improve anti-poaching efforts is a major source of effort in the Russian Far East.  I’m learning about these efforts in depth at the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) office.

Dr. Dale Miquelle, Director of Wildlife Conservation Society’s Russia Program, tells me about a new system that his team has rolled out in four protected areas of the Russian Far East that has proven effective elsewhere in the world in curbing tiger poaching.  Here’s how it works:  Anti-poaching patrols (“inspectors”) GPS their patrol routes and collect data on violations (e.g., firearm confiscations, poaching) as well as tiger and leopard signs.  Back at the WCS office, the data are entered and mapped using software called “MIST” and reports are produced that show where the teams patrolled and what they found.  Based on maps showing all patrols and all violations, team leaders can adjust their effort to fill gaps in their patrol routes, or adjust effort if violations are cropping up in a particular sector.  Then, law enforcement managers hold feedback meetings with the teams to review work of the previous period and strategize for the next field period.  Teams are given bonuses based on how well they performed.  So basically, it holds anti-poaching teams accountable for their work, provides incentives to those that do a good job, and empowers wildlife managers with information to improve patrolling.  In the areas of the Russian Far East where this system has been in place for a couple years, the patrolling effort and effectiveness have improved, and poaching rates have declined.  The hope is to roll out this system more widely in an effort to protect tigers and other wildlife.

The next day, I meet up with Misha Goncharuk, a wildlife veterinarian working for the Zoological Society of London, and Nadya Sulikhan, a graduate student working with WCS on wildlife health issues.  The Tiger Health Support Program we’re supporting is helping train young professionals like these to address wildlife health issues that affect tigers and other wild animals in the Russian Far East, and to respond to disease threats such as canine distemper virus.  These capabilities are sorely lacking in the area, and the need is great.  Canine distemper virus is an emerging threat in this area and is highly lethal in tigers and probably leopards as well.

Misha and Nadya are collecting biological samples from wild carnivores as well as domestic dogs and cats, and conducting surveys in villages to understand the health risks that domestic animals may pose to tigers and leopards.  This work is in collaboration with Dr. Martin Gilbert, who I met earlier in my travels.  I’m excited that Misha and Nadya are coming to the Minnesota Zoo this August as part of a veterinary training program, in collaboration with WCS/Bronx Zoo!

This concludes my trip to the Russian Far East!  I’ve had an amazing visit and sincerely thank my hosts from the Wildlife Conservation Society and Zoological Society of London.  Please consider making a donation in support of these important conservation efforts atwww.mnzoo.org/tigercampaign or at mnzoo.org/get-involved/donate/ (click “Donate Now” and specify Amur leopard and tiger conservation in the comments section).