January Update: Amur Tiger Prey Study – A small upload of camera-trap results


Last July, Conservation Frontlines introduced its first Select Study: research in support of predators and prey in Russia’s vast and remote Far East. Only some 500 Amur (Siberian) tiger survive there, and they depend on wild boar and red deer. These two species are also vital for the food security and culture of the human community in the region. Normally, the study leader, University of Montana grad student Scott Waller, would be there now, but of course he is stranded by the pandemic—which has also curtailed his funding. As we help him raise funds for the future, we asked him for a progress report. 

Scott Waller in Russia, pre-pandemic—February 2020. All photos are courtesy of WCS / Sikhote-Alin Zapovednik.

Winter has arrived in the Sikhote-Alin mountains of Russia’s Far East. This is a relatively dry period for the region, and the sun does little to warm against the cold, biting winds. Storms blow in from the Sea of Japan, dumping large amounts of snow. Wildlife species deal with winter in their own ways: Bears and chipmunks hole up and hibernate; boar and deer rely on what fat stores they were able to build over the fall; and predators from yellow-throated martens to Amur tigers count on the increased vulnerability of their prey.

In this landscape of survival, our team is hard at work. Thanks to the Wildlife Conservation Society and the support of the Sikhote-Alin Zapovednik, 72 trail cameras were deployed this fall and are taking pictures of wildlife as you read this update. Whenever an animal moves into a camera’s detection zone, an infrared sensor detects the temperature difference between the animal and its environment. This, and the animal’s motion, triggers the shutter and captures an image. Over the next several months, these cameras will record the diverse community of winter wildlife, including the important prey species we’re studying: wild boar, red deer, roe deer and sika deer.

Deploying these cameras was no easy task. Good research demands they be placed in truly random locations selected by computer. The coordinates of these locations were then given to field staff, who had to figure out how actually to reach those points. Luckily, cliffs, enormous swaths of deadfall and raging rivers are all in a day’s work for the WCS team. Their expertise, endurance and grit continue to be the pillar on which Amur tiger conservation is built. Thanks to them, these great cats still roam the rolling forests of the Far East, as wild as ever.

Kept in Montana by COVID-19, I’m processing the data captured by our camera traps last season. There are hundreds of thousands of photos, and the going is slow. But I’m motivated, and the great photos of wildlife are a reward all on their own. I’ve shared some of them with you here, with permission from WCS and the Zapovednik.

Always, I am struck by the range of wildlife that these cameras capture. Our goal is to measure accurately the abundance of tiger prey species, but these cameras have captured more than just prey. This biodiversity speaks to the value of protecting the wild of the Far East: This is truly a unique place filled with fascinating animals. By protecting umbrella species like the Amur tiger, which need vast areas of land, we protect the habitat of these myriad other species, too.

Keep in mind that protecting land is not always enough. There must also be sufficient prey for tigers to survive and reproduce. With the survey techniques we’re testing and developing here, wildlife managers can determine which forests host the greatest prey populations and which should be prioritized for protection. And where prey populations are depleted, managers can begin to determine why and take appropriate action.

We need your help to keep this project going. Retrieving our cameras in the spring will require another heroic effort, and anything you can donate helps support our field crews. Please contribute what you can—and thank you!

Camera Trap Slideshow