Siberian tigers in eastern Russia have long been on the verge of extinction, largely due to poachers. But a new threat is menacing the big cats. Recently, a disoriented tigress named Gayla was destroyed after she wandered into human territory looking for easy prey. Scientists believe this may have something to do with a strange, neurological disease. As The Guardian reports, this new threat may be the final straw for Siberian tigers.
What is happening within the brains of Siberian, or Amur, tigers remains a mystery to biologists. Gayla was the fourth tiger to die this month. These dead tigers share a common friend—a male that may be carrying a disease that is impairing the animals’ ability to hunt. The animals feed primarily on wild boar and red deer in the area, as well as moose and salmon. It is highly unusual for them to consider humans prey.
When Gayla wandered into human territory, experts knew something was terribly wrong. Dr. Dale Miquelle is the director of the Wildlife Conservation Society of Russia. Recently, he spoke with The Guardian about the fate of Gayla. According to Miquelle, "This tiger had lost its fear of humans—typically Amur tigers will never expose themselves for observation. It was like seeing someone you know turn into a vampire."
While researchers worked frantically to remove Gayla from the area, she ultimately had to be put down. The animal had also abandoned her young cubs, which were later found dead. Miquelle suspects this particular behavior suggests a neurological impairment. As she elaborates, "We are extremely concerned about the possibility of an epidemic that could be sweeping through this region. Animals we have studied extensively, and known well, have demonstrated radically changed behavior, which is extremely disconcerting."
This disease could spell the end of the Siberian tiger. This animal once ranged through Asia and Russia but is now confined to the Amur-Ussuri region of eastern Siberia. Poaching continues to be the biggest threat to the tiger's survival, but any new threat—man-made or otherwise—could push the animal to extinction. Only 150 are said to exist and 12 to 16 adult females are killed each year by illegal poaching, despite the animal’s protected status.
A draft Russian tiger conservation strategy has addressed this new disease. Officials hope that a vaccine can be created to assist the animals before it's too late.
By Katherine Butler