WATCH: Camera trap footage from a reserve in the Russian Far East shows two cubs recently born to a tiger that was orphaned and reintroduced to the area two years ago. Footage courtesy Bastak Reserve/Wildlife Conservation Society

The mother tiger rubs against a pine tree in Russia’s remote Bastak Reserve, introducing her rambunctious two-month-old cubs to the scents of other tigers and prey animals that have left their mark.

Until recently, Siberian tiger scent has been all but absent from this 162-square-mile (420-square-kilometer) landscape in the Russian Far East.

During the past four decades, the big cats have been driven to near extinction by habitat loss, capture for zoos, and hunting for their skins and bones. Almost all of the approximately 500 Siberian tigers left in the wild live in the Russian Far East.

But a newly released video offers a ray of hope: An orphaned tiger cub that was later reintroduced to the wild—Zolushka, Russian for “Cinderella”—has cubs of her own.

It's the first known instance of a reintroduced Siberian tiger reproducing, and conservationists say it could signal a historic, if tenuous, comeback for the big cat. (Related: "Watch: Tiger Numbers Growing in Russia—But Will It Last?")

“We are in the middle of an experiment,” Dale Miquelle, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Russia Program, said of Zolushka's reintroduction.

“This birth demonstrates that it’s possible to take abandoned cubs and reintroduce them to live a normal life," Miquelle says.

"But one of the big questions now is whether this tiger can raise cubs without having had her own mother.”

Orphan Rescue

Zolushka lost her mother to poachers in 2012 when she was about five months old.

Hunters found her starved and barely breathing in the snow and brought her to a local wildlife manager, who nursed her to health. Zolushka was soon moved to the Alekseyevka Rehabilitation Center. (See National Geographic's tiger pictures.)

There, tiger experts went to great lengths to limit her human contact so they could raise her to be not acclimated to people and able to hunt on her own. At the age of 20 months, Zolushka was set free into the forested hills of Bastak Reserve, just west of low wetlands along the Amur River.

The reserve is hard to reach, even for tigers, most of which range in the Sikhote-Alin Mountains near the Sea of Japan.

Against the Odds?

With plenty of wild boar, badgers, and other prey in Bastak, Zolushka and her cubs could thrive, experts say. (Watch a rare video of a Siberian tiger family playing in China.)

But the odds are not in their favor. Zolushka’s home range is about 150 square miles (400 square kilometers) so she and her cubs will likely wander beyond the protected area, where poaching is a major threat.

The demand for tiger parts in China is on the rise, fueled by tiger “farming” that supplies skins and bones to wealthy buyers on the black market. (Also see: “Speaking for Tigers: A Call to End Asia’s Illegal Trade.”)

Zolushka is also more vulnerable now because she will defend her cubs rather than run from a hunter. Still, experts are rooting for her.

“The fact that Zolushka has managed to hunt and breed successfully in the wild is a rare story worth celebrating,” Jennie R.B. Miller, a big cat researcher at Panthera, the University of Cape Town and Cornell University, says by email.

“Tigers are so at risk of extinction that we need to get creative with conservation approaches. However, we also need to ensure that the pressures are solved, such as poaching and conflicts with people.

"Zolushka's story is not over.”

Follow Karen de Seve on Twitter.

 

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