Select Study: To Conserve Tigers and Prey in the Russian Far East

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Conservation Frontlines introduces its first Select Study—a challenging American-Russian research project in support of predators, prey and rural communities in the remote wilderness of the Sikhote-Alin Biosphere Reserve. The results will advance wildlife analysis across the world, especially in an era of climate change.

Everywhere, fish & game departments, environment ministries, NGOs, colleges and universities, trained scientists and committed amateurs are passionately scrutinizing everything from microbes to cetaceans in the increasingly urgent need to prop up biodiversity and stave off extinctions. Many of these studies require financial assistance, especially now. How would Conservation Frontlines choose one of these wildlife projects to endorse? As we began to narrow the field, several criteria for our first Select Study emerged:

It would focus directly on wildlife, as opposed to habitat, the environment or climate. Second, the study should have broad applications—its findings would benefit other species, too, even on the far side of the world. Third, the researchers’ academic credentials must be outstanding. And finally the project should have sufficient appeal, even flair, to attract non-scientists and perhaps the general public—some sizzle, that is, to go along with the steak.

Thus we’d like to introduce Scott Waller, a graduate student in the Wildlife Biology Program at the University of Montana. His multi-year study—“Devising a Camera Trap Methodology for Estimated Abundance of Tiger Prey Species” in the Russian far East—will be an important contribution to advancing the science of measuring wild animal populations across diverse species and habitats. We hope that you will join us to help protect one of the world’s magnificent predators and the rural communities that share its habitat. Now, in the COVID era, direct financial support for conservation is needed more than ever. So that we know more about how our donations will be spent, we asked Scott to describe his work in greater detail.

The coastal cliffs of Scott Waller’s study area—the Sikhote-Alin Biosphere Reserve, where the Russian Far East meets the Sea of Japan. S. Bondarchuk photo

Conservation Frontlines: Scott, the Amur tiger is an ultimate “charismatic megaspecies,” but in fact you’re not studying tigers, you’re seeking to conserve their prey. How are those species threatened and what does this mean to the tiger? 

Scott Waller: Our main concern is that Russian biologists risk losing the ability to manage these prey populations, principally red deer and wild boar. These species are important food sources for both the tigers—which are critically endangered—and for the local people, who also depend heavily on them for their livelihoods.

Hunting is very important in the Russian Far East, especially in the remote villages in tiger habitat. Hunting provides protein and it is part of the Far East’s cultural heritage. There, like everywhere, hunters are proud of their skills and knowledge and share a good deal of camaraderie. WCS, the Wildlife Conservation Society, has good information about hunting and tiger conservation in the region.

Some 80% of Russian tiger habitat is managed by hunting organizations, which set the annual hunting quotas for deer and boar. The new survey techniques, using trail cameras, that my project is testing are meant to assist these organizations in the face of climate change. They have to decide where and how many boar and deer can be harvested each year—sustainably, of course. Historically, their wildlife managers have used winter track surveys to inform these decisions, a method that has been foundational to Russia’s game management for nearly a century. These surveys also provided long-term datasets that helped identify trends in ungulate populations, such as their presence or absence over time and whether populations are increasing or decreasing.

Amur tiger prey: A red stag in the Sikhote-Alin Reserve. WCS Russia photo

When I began the field work, in January of 2020, Svetlana Soutyrina, the director of the Sikhote-Alin Biosphere Reserve, told me they had only been able to conduct snow surveys during four of the past seven years—there just hasn’t been enough snow. How then can managers make informed decisions about prey management? Wildlife reserves and hunting leases in the region currently use cameras to monitor the tigers, so we’re hoping that these same cameras, or more cameras placed nearby, will provide an accurate, affordable and climate-independent way to continue monitoring prey as well as predator populations. The cameras may also provide us more information than track surveys can, such as estimating animal movement rates based on how quickly they cross the camera’s viewshed.

Personally, though, I hope track surveys never disappear entirely. They get us away from our computers and into the animal’s environment, where we develop field skills by skiing transects and counting tracks. There’s a strong argument that cameras contribute to the growing problem of tech separating the biologist from his or her study area. And while these Russian track surveys are not used in the US, they have stood up well to recent statistical tests and are being used by biologists all around the world, including Africa.

There’s nothing new about trail cameras; can you give us specifics about this “accurate, affordable and climate-independent” way of using them?

Trail cameras have been used for a quarter-century now to study wildlife. In fact, some of the earliest work with these cameras was done by Dr. Ullas Karanth and others in the 1990s, using cameras to “capture” tigers in India. Since each tiger’s stripe pattern is unique, managers can identify individual tigers in photos, which means they can use a mark-recapture framework to estimate the size and health of the tiger population and track these datasets over time. Tiger scientists in Russia have been using camera traps for this purpose for many years now.

But things get complicated when you can’t identify individual animals, as is generally the case with red deer and wild boar. Wildlife biologists have been searching for a reliable method by which to monitor such species with cameras. Several methods have been proposed and are still being tested, including some that have come out of the University of Montana from the work of Anna Moeller and others.

Moeller’s methods, which she calls the Space-to-Event and Time-to-Event models, use the actual measured area of ground in front of the camera as a sample of the greater study area. It may seem like a big jump to go from square metres sampled, or photographed, to square kilometres estimated, but as long as the number of cameras is sufficient, the results have been really promising.

These methods are being tested in North America by researchers from the University of Montana for a variety of species. Idaho Fish and Game is monitoring their wolf population this way and another UM grad student’s thesis applied these methods to mountain lions with good results. These are predators, not prey, but again, a key factor is that individual animals can’t reliably be identified in photos. On the prey side, these methods have been tested successfully on elk in the Beaverhead Mountains, in Idaho, and elsewhere in the US and Canada.


“East of Siberia”: Research biologist Sergei Avdeyuk, on loan from the Amur-Ussuri Center for Avian Diversity, checks a camera’s settings and field of view. Scott Waller photo

The Russian arm of the Wildlife Conservation Society is supporting the testing of these new methods in a totally different environment—east of Siberia, where success will have great conservation benefits for both people and tigers. We’re also testing to see whether our cameras, if they capture enough photos, could provide novel estimates of population size for other species in the Sikhote-Alin Reserve, including lynx, leopard cat, brown bear and Eurasian black bear.

The global relevance of local studies is always important. Can you expand on this a bit further? 

Prey monitoring was identified as a priority for tiger managers at the World Tiger Summit in 2010, when all 13 nations with wild tiger populations met in St. Petersburg [Russia] and agreed to work toward doubling the global wild tiger population by 2022. Getting a handle on prey populations is important for tiger managers to understand where tigers are now as well as where they might be able to expand their range. Our project could provide managers with an accurate and standardized method to survey prey in diverse habitats and for other prey species.

The more we can test these methods in different habitats and on different animals, the better we can identify what works, what doesn’t work and what needs to be modified on a case-by-case basis—such as on or off trails, the number of cameras necessary, how long they have to be deployed, time-lapse versus motion-trigger activation and so forth.

The challenges seem significant—the impacts of cold weather and remoteness on people and equipment and so forth. Do you make the rounds of your camera traplines to collect data? 

Oh, yes, we have to service the cameras—check battery levels, change memory cards, make sure the settings are still OK. Even if these cameras were Web-enabled, and they’re not, there’s no wide Internet coverage anyway. Ideally, each camera is serviced at least once during deployment, after 45-ish days. But some cameras are simply too remote, and we don’t have the time and field staff to service every single one. It can get very cold there, dipping sometimes to minus 40º, which really tests the batteries. But these temperatures are the extremes, not the norm, and so far the cameras and batteries have withstood these extreme periods. Most of the cameras take 12 AAs and we use lithium-ion batteries, which last longer in the cold. Also, shooting photos only and not video does a lot to extend battery life.

Scott skiing Russian-style in a typical Sikhote-Alin coastal oak-birch forest. Karann Putrevu photo

Early on in developing the project, I consulted with Director Soutyrina and her staff frequently to discuss what parts of the reserve we could access, where they had carried out snow tracking surveys, where they felt they needed more data, etc. Svetlana is vital to this project—she has been incredibly generous and kind, even lending us 20 of their own trail cameras this past season. We have to take them down after the study period is over, as both the Reserve’s and WCS Russia’s trail cameras are needed for other wildlife projects.

What’s your field area like? Do you live in a village nearby? How do you get around? How are the people to work with? 

The area is very remote, and roads are rough. It’s a 14-hour bus ride from Vladivostok to the village of Terney, where both the Reserve and WCS Russia have offices and where I live. The village is in the Sikhote-Alin Biosphere Reserve—which is roughly the size of Glacier National Park; a bit more than 1,500 square miles [3,900 sq km]—and it’s on a beautiful estuary where the Serebryanka River flows into the Sea of Japan. We can access a fair bit of our study area from Terney by vehicle. But to get to more remote areas we use skis, snowshoes and snowmobiles, if there’s enough snow, and 4x4s—they call them kvadrasikl, “quadracycles”—if there isn’t. The reserve has a network of cabins, stocked with hefty wood stoves and plenty of firewood, which we use in the more remote areas.

Terney, pop. approximately 3,500, in balmier weather—Scott’s home in Russia. WCS Russia and the Sikhote-Alin Reserve have offices here. photo

We deploy as many cameras as we can. Given practical limitations—our study area, the difficult access and weather, resources, manpower and so forth—we were happy to be able to put out 66. If we could, we’d have 500, like Idaho Fish and Game does for their wolf monitoring! We haven’t collected all of last winter’s photos yet, so we’re not sure if those 66 cameras will provide a nice, precise estimate. In general, the more cameras, the better.

Right now [mid-June 2020] I’m stuck in Montana because of COVID, but thankfully WCS is keeping the project moving forward and collecting the cameras we deployed this winter. It’ll likely be a couple of weeks before I can get my hands on the data and begin my analyses, but I will update you on our results as soon as I can.

Statistics demand that some of our camera locations be truly random, meaning that we generate random points on GIS, load them into our GPS units and then do our best to reach them. Sometimes we fail—it’s too far, too steep, too thick. Back in 2016, Typhoon Lionrock swept through Terney and deep into the Reserve. Still today, it’s like a herd of giants went rampaging across the forest, leveling entire hillsides of trees, even scraping away the thin soil. One ranger told me he could travel well over a hundred metres in places without ever touching the ground, just walking on downed trees. The really messy places have piles of logs much higher than a person’s head. As you can imagine, this makes hiking off-trail very, very difficult. But in other places, the forest is park-like and beautiful.

Installing cameras, winter 2020. “Sergei, on the snowmobile, is telling me about Vladimir Arsenyev, the early-20th Century hero of the Russian Far East who explored much of the Reserve.” Karann Putrevu photo

The people: This project would be impossible without the team of dedicated workers from WCS and the Reserve. Here in the US, Russians are supposedly cold and unfriendly, which may be true if you’re a stranger. But once you become acquainted, the villagers in Terney are some of the friendliest and most respectful people I’ve met. What’s more, Russian hospitality is like none I’ve ever experienced: When you visit someone, they load you up with gifts, candies, homemade jams and pickled veggies, and insist you stay for tea and conversation, all with smiles and a welcoming warmth in their voices. The people at the Reserve and WCS have become dear friends and colleagues who welcome me with open arms and have already taught me so much about tigers and their prey, about Russian customs and culture, and about life in the Far East. I can’t wait to get back over there to start this coming field season with them.

But the reality is that the climate is changing and the biggest problem for wildlife managers is the warmer temperatures. Winter on the east side of the Sikhote-Alin Range typically is very dry, with only a handful of severe snowstorms. Historically, it was cold enough that the snow stayed light and powdery, which is great for tracking. But recently the weather after these storms has been warmer; the snow melts during the day and then freezes overnight. This cycle makes it difficult to tell the age or size of tracks. Sometimes now it even rains in the winter, which of course is a disaster for tracking. A warming of only a few degrees makes the difference between fresh snow that wildlife managers can use or rain, which makes using any tracks nearly impossible.


Fresh tracks of an Amur tiger in dry snow. When walking, a tiger’s rear paws always print above the front paws—“back in the front and front in the back.” Individuals can only be identified by measuring their front paws, not the back. Scott Waller photo

These tigers are among the most romanticized animals on the planet. How does your work intersect with them? 

Amur tigers are a classic example of a “conservation-dependent” species—without our active efforts, the species would have gone extinct long ago. But there is a strong legacy of tiger conservation in Russia, especially at the Sikhote-Alin Reserve. Some of the landmark studies are Lev Kaplanov’s pioneering research, done by tracking them through the snow; Evgenii Smirnov’s work in fostering local support for tiger conservation at the end of the 20th Century; and the collaboration of WCS Russia and the Reserve since the 1990s, which has dramatically improved the understanding of tiger ecology and conservation needs, including the importance of healthy prey populations.

Thanks to these and many other valiant efforts, the Amur tiger population has increased from maybe 30 to 40 individuals in the 1930s to around 500 in 2015. This is spectacular and worth celebrating, but the population is far from secure. Poaching remains a constant danger. Logging roads fragment their habitat and give poachers greater access to tigers—and their prey. Now there’s canine distemper virus. What’s more, Amur tigers have quite low genetic diversity, a consequence of the population bottoming out in the 1930s. But it is worth noting that conservationists haven’t seen in tigers the same problems with inbreeding as in Amur leopards, the world’s most endangered cat species, which lives south of our study area.

These are pressing, complex threats with no easy solutions. But I do want to emphasize the great work being done to help the Amur tiger. For instance, in 2015, Russia established Bikin National Park, protecting a whopping 4,500 square miles [11.6 million sq km], three times the size of Glacier National Park, of prime tiger habitat. Both tigers and leopards continue to expand into northeastern China too, and the Chinese government is supporting this with new protected areas. Also, new technologies and adaptive approaches like SMART, the System Monitoring and Reporting Tool, are helping to stop poachers. Tiger threats are serious and many, but there also are many people who are serious about finding solutions to these threats.

And I’ll add our prey-monitoring project to this list of solutions, too. Tigers need their prey, and by developing an accurate, efficient and standardized method to monitor prey across the tiger’s range, we can focus prey conservation in areas that need it most.

Have you had any tiger encounters yourself?

People, even hunters or avid naturalists, can live their whole lives there and never see a tiger. Not only are they rare, but they actively do not want to be seen by people. So I haven’t encountered one myself. But I have come across steaming-hot tracks on several occasions, meaning they certainly saw me! And one night while we were putting up a camera in a very remote area, we got yowled at. The forest was really thick, so we didn’t see anything, but she was certainly close. It was like when you pick up a housecat that doesn’t want to be bothered and it lets out that irritated noise, except tiger-size.

Mature Amur tiger caught on camera strolling along a trail in the Sikhote-Alin Reserve. Svetlana Soutyrina photo

We’re always on alert and take precautions. We always go out in teams of at least two and we carry hand-held flares in case a tiger or bear charges us—we can’t get pepper spray there. And we deliberately make a lot of noise, so there’s less chance of startling anything into a defensive attack.

Finally: How does a farm boy from Montana develop a deep interest in Russia?

I’ve always been interested in wild places and how different cultures relate to them. My interest in Russia started when I read Crime and Punishment in high school and got a look into Russia’s fascinating history. During my undergrad days at Middlebury College, in Vermont, I started taking Russian language classes. The Russian department there is stellar and before I knew it, I had taken seven semesters of Russian. Then, especially since the relationship between the US and Russia has been tense, I wanted to experience Russia myself. As I learned more about Russia’s conservation efforts, I saw a chance to appreciate the similarities between our countries rather than the differences. So many of our conservation challenges are global, and finding mutual values and goals, especially for countries at political odds, is critical to solving these problems in a collaborative manner. Working and studying in the Russian Far East has let me apply my language skills and learn about Russian culture first-hand while also pursuing my passion for conservation.

Scott Waller at home in Montana—along the Middle Fork of the Flathead River just outside Glacier National Park. Scott Pilcher photo

Please help Conservation Frontlines support work that has such global value. Every dollar, euro, pound, pula and ruble raised will go directly to Scott Waller’s University of Montana tiger project. And each issue of Conservation Frontlines will bring you up to date on Scott’s progress and findings. This is the sort of work we need now more than ever. Thank you! 

Banner image: An Amur tiger triggers a trail camera in the Sikhote-Alin Biosphere Reserve. WCS Russia & Sikhote-Alin Reserve photo