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The Real Tiger Fairy Tale That Just Got Even Better

Zolushka, the orphaned tiger cub who made headlines when she was rehabilitated and released, now makes history by giving birth in the wild.

By Vicki Croke

ZolushkaCubs_Crop-Bastak Reserve

The first photo glimpses of Zolushka with her tiger cubs. Photo: Bastak Nature Reserve.

The real-life fairy tale of Zolushka the tiger, which we first told you about in January (From Orphaned, Frostbitten Cub To Fearless ‘Tiger Princess’) just got even better: The rescued, rehabilitated, and released cat has not only survived in the wild, she’s given birth to two cubs. And she’s raising them in a part of the Russian Far East that had been depleted of tigers for 40 years.

It’s the first time ever that a rehabilitated Amur tiger has given birth in the wild.

In the video, Zolushka looks like an attentive and no-nonsense mother. Courtesy of Anton Semyonov/YouTube/WCS.

Proof of her success, captured in camera trap pictures and video, represents hope not only for the resilient Zolushka (the Russian equivalent of Cinderella), but for the future of Amur tigers (often called Siberian tigers), whose population, because of poaching and habitat loss, is down to only about 500.

And if any cat could succeed, it would be Zolushka. She is one tough tiger.

As we first reported:

Two hunters found her in the winter of 2012—alone, starving, and frostbitten. She was an almost dead tiger cub—really not much more than a striped bag of bones lying in snow.

 

She’d been orphaned—her mother probably killed by poachers.

 

Zolushka-receiving-care-

Zolushka was starving, alone, and near death when hunters discovered her and carried her to a wildlife officer. Biologists had to amputate part of her frostbitten tail. Photo: WCS.

 

Taking pity on her, the hunters threw a coat over the nearly lifeless cat, and carried her to the local wildlife inspector, who fed and protected her. The official called upon Dale Miquelle, a top cat in the world of tiger biologists, who runs the Russia program for the Wildlife Conservation Society, and has been tracking and studying these animals since the early 1990s.

 

The 4-month-old tiger was anesthetized and treated, having much of her frostbitten, blackened tail amputated.

From there, she was put through a kind of outward bound program, where she learned to hunt and to bury her leftovers in snow. In May 2013, when she was 18 months old—the age that young tigers leave their mothers—she was released into the Bastak Nature Reserve. The reserve had lost its tigers long ago, but under new protections, biologists felt that Zolushka would be safe. They were also confident in the cat herself.

And early reports indicated that she had learned her lessons well. As we reported:

There was evidence right away that she killed and ate a badger, and then shortly after that she brought down a wild boar. Proving she’s a pretty tough, hard-core kind of Cinderella. If she were human, she’d be more comfortable in ice cleats than glass slippers.

Scientists, using a satellite and radio collar and camera traps to keep tabs on Zolushka saw that she had attracted a male from far away. It was a good sign.

Photo: Bastak Nature Reserve.

Zolushka has proved to be a formidable hunter. Photo: Bastak Nature Reserve.

In the new video, we see that Zolushka not only found a mate, but that she’s kept her character—now as a no-nonsense mother, who, at one point in the clip, lovingly swats her cub.

“This is a watershed event not just for Zolushka, but for the entire population of Amur tigers,” WCS Russia Director Dale Miquelle said in a statement, yesterday. “These births mark the return of tigers to habitat that had been lost, and the beginnings of a recovery and expansion of the last remaining Amur tiger population into habitat lost years ago.”

Miquelle had been among a number of biologists and conservations from various groups, including Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution, and the International Fund for Animal Welfare, monitoring Zolushka’s progress.

According to a statement from WCS:

Anxious waiting by biologists in the area was rewarded on December 9, 2015, when Ivan Podkolnokov, the reserve inspector responsible for monitoring Zolushka – Russian for Cinderella – returned from the field with historic photos: Zolushka standing under a huge Korean pine tree, with two small cubs huddled underneath her.

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