Zolushka the tiger

Zolushka examines a camera trap in the Bastak nature reserve on March 31, 2014. (Photo: Wildlife Conservation Society)

Amur tigers have spent nearly a century clawing back from the brink of extinction, growing from as few as 20 cats in the 1930s to as many as 500 in 2005. They have backslid lately, though, due partly to a resurgence of poaching. About 350 to 400 adults exist today, and while they're still endangered, their outlook is brighter thanks to a Cinderella story unfolding in the boreal forests of Russia's Far East.

That story began in February 2012, when two hunters found a 4-month-old Amur tiger cub alone in Primorsky province, likely having lost her mother to poachers. The cub was starving, lethargic and had frostbite, so the hunters took her to a local expert at the Primorsky Wildlife Department. There she received veterinary care — including the amputation of a third of her frostbitten tail — before moving to Russia's new Center for Rehabilitation and Reintroduction of Tigers and Other Rare Animals.

The cub's caretakers named her "Zolushka," the Russian equivalent of "Cinderella." She was the first tiger brought to the rehab center, which is designed to teach orphaned cubs how to hunt while preserving their natural fear of humans. This involved giving Zolushka live prey without exposing her to people behind the scenes, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society, a U.S.-based nonprofit whose Russian chapter helps with Amur tiger rehab efforts. Once Zolushka could catch rabbits on her own, she was upgraded to trickier prey like wild boar, whose tusks and spunk proved educational.

"It was like a kid trying to figure out a puzzle," WCS Russia director Dale Miquelle recently told Smithsonian Magazine about Zolushka's experience with boar. "She got it, but it took a little time."

Just 15 months after her rescue, Zolushka was deemed ready to go home in May 2013. A team of handlers sedated her, outfitted her with GPS and trucked her to Bastak nature preserve — a former habitat of Amur tigers that scientists hoped she might help recolonize. Her release was suspenseful, as seen in the video below, offering a hint of the drama to come.

Zolushka spent several days exploring her new habitat, and when her GPS signal finally paused in one place, scientists hoped it meant she had caught prey and stopped to eat it. Carcasses found in the field confirmed their suspicions: Zolushka was successfully hunting deer, badgers and even wild boar.

But the GPS collar stopped working just a few months later, leaving scientists in the dark about her location and well-being. Park rangers and WCS staff searched the area until they found tiger tracks, then set up camera traps to see if the footprints matched their Cinderella. They did, it turned out, and the cameras caught multiple images of Zolushka — who is easily recognizable not just by her distinctive stripes, like all tigers, but also by the shortness of her amputated tail.

Once they were tracking Zolushka again, scientists made another big discovery: a second set of larger tracks next to hers. Images from camera traps revealed this companion was a healthy adult male, who researchers named Zavetny. The two tigers seem to be sharing a range and even sharing meals, suggesting Zolushka's rehab has allowed a smooth transition back to the wild. Female Amur tigers reach sexual maturity at about 3 years old, according to the Russian Academy of Sciences, and rangers have reportedly found evidence that Zolushka and Zavetny may have mated. That has raised hopes of offspring, which would mark the area's first baby tigers in more than 60 years.

"If cubs are born," Miquelle says in a recent press release about Zolushka's progress, "it will be the ultimate sign of success in returning tigers to this once empty landscape."

Zolushka's return to the wild has been followed by others, including the release of three rehabbed orphans named Ilona, Borya and Kuzya in 2014, caught in the video below:

These tigers are returning to a different world than the one their ancestors knew 100 years ago, even in a remote corner of Russia. Not only are today's poachers more sophisticated and better-equipped, but the tigers' former territory is also increasingly occupied by people, pets and livestock. Ustin, a male Amur tiger orphan who was released in Russia last year, recently caused an international incident by wandering across the border into China, where he began feeding on farmers' goats.

Kuzya has also visited China since his release, although he isn't blamed for any livestock deaths, and his scat samples indicate a diet of mostly wild boar. The adventure still raised concern for his safety, though, and not just because China's Heilongjiang Province is home to 38 million people. Tiger parts are thought to have medicinal value in China, where a single carcass can sell for up to $10,000, and Kuzya was in an area known for snare traps. Poaching is a main reason why China only has about 30 Amur tigers, also known as Siberian tigers, so scientists were relieved when Kuzya returned to Russia in December.

But according to Zhang Minghai, vice director of the Feline Research Center in China's State Forestry Administration, Kuzya will probably be back. "Kuzya is very likely to visit China again," Zhang tells the Xinhua news agency, "as [he] marked the areas he visited with his urine, designating his 'territory'."

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Russell McLendon ( @russmclendon ) writes about humans and other wildlife.