Amur tigers are endangered, with only about 500 left in the wild. They're still at risk despite decades of protection, but they do have more bright spots lately. And one of those, an inspirational tiger named Zolushka, just grew even brighter.
Zolushka, whose name is Russian for "Cinderella," has given birth to two healthy cubs in Russia's Bastak Nature Reserve. The young family was discovered by a motion-sensing camera, which recorded video of them playing in snow on Dec. 7.
That alone is newsworthy, since Bastak is a former Amur tiger habitat that conservationists are trying to help the big cats recolonize. Until now, no tigers had been born there for 60 years. And since Zolushka is one of only two known adults in Bastak, her cubs may have just doubled the park's tiger population.
But the story behind these babies makes their birth even more miraculous.
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Zolushka is named after Cinderella for a reason: She's an orphan, having lost her own mother when she was just 4 months old. Two hunters found her alone in Russia's Primorksy province in February 2012, likely orphaned by poachers. She was starving, lethargic and had frostbite, so they took her to the Primorsky Wildlife Department. There she received medical care — which included amputating a third of her frostbitten tail — before she was moved to a new rehab center for tigers.
Designed to help orphaned cubs learn hunting skills while preserving their fear of humans, the center gave Zolushka live prey without letting her see the people backstage. Her initial attempts to catch boar were "like a kid trying to figure out a puzzle," according to her caretakers, but she eventually got it.
After months of rehab, Zolushka was released into the forests of Bastak in May 2013. She erupted from her cage as the door finally opened, a dramatic moment captured in this video by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW):
Researchers used GPS to study Zolushka's movements, revealing a few days of exploration followed by long pauses that seemed like hunting and eating. Carcasses found in her path later confirmed she was catching prey — even wild boar.
When the GPS collar stopped working, researchers were forced to look for tiger tracks and set up camera traps. Not only did they find Zolushka again, but they learned she had begun hanging out with a healthy adult male. Female Amur tigers reach sexual maturity at about 3 years old, and park rangers at Bastak eventually found evidence that Zolushka and her prince, whom they named Zavetny, may have mated.
And now, this resilient orphan has gone from losing her mother in 2012 to becoming a mother herself in 2015. It's the first time a rehabilitated Amur tiger has ever given birth in the wild, raising hopes that other rescued orphans might be capable of similar recoveries. IFAW recently released this video of Zolushka and her cubs:
Bastak reportedly has lots of prey, including deer and elk as well as boar, so the tigers should eat well. But as Karen de Seve points out in National Geographic, their home range is about 150 square miles (400 square kilometers), so there's a good chance they'll roam beyond the park's borders into places known for poaching.
Plus, as one expert tells de Seve, it remains to be seen how well humans have prepared an orphan for motherhood. "This birth demonstrates that it's possible to take abandoned cubs and reintroduce them to live a normal life," says Dale Miquelle, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society in Russia. "But one of the big questions now is whether this tiger can raise cubs without having had her own mother."
The odds may be against Zolushka and her new family, but it's still hard not to feel at least a little inspired by a Cinderella story like this.
"We are overjoyed with the news of Zolushka becoming a mother to two healthy cubs," says Masha Vorontsova, director of IFAW Russia, in a press release about the discovery. "This is what we've all been hoping for since her release in 2013. This shows that she has fully adapted to a life in the wild and is able to successfully hunt, breed and now raise a new generation of Amur tigers."