ON THE TRAIL OF SIBERIAN TIGERS
By Dick Mason
Observer Staff Writer
Wildlife biologist Linda Kerley is putting herself on the cutting edge without the aid of cutting edge technology.
Kerley, a former La Grande resident, is helping to develop a new technique for tracking Siberian tigers in Eastern Russia that does not involve the use of radio collars, computer chips or aircraft.
Instead, a pair of German shepherds are her primary tool.
Kerley is helping to monitor the movements of nine Siberian tigers through a new method known as scent-dog monitoring. Through it the scat of Siberian tigers is collected and the locations noted.
The scat is brought back to a research office where Kerley's German shepherds identify which tigers it came from. The dogs have been trained to distinguish between the different scents of nine tigers that are being monitored. One German shepherd identifies the scat of specific tigers with 89 percent accuracy, the other with 96 percent accuracy.
The scent-dog monitoring technique was first developed by a Russian scientist and is being perfected with the help of Kerley and Galin Sulka, a Russian
The two biologists are studying Siberian tigers in the Lazovsky State Nature Reserve about 150 miles east of Vladivostok. Those who assist them include Linda Kerley's husband, Michael Igorovich Borisenko.
Scent-dog monitoring is not meant to replace radio telemetry as a means of tracking animals. However, it is meant to offer biologists a less expensive and obtrusive way of following the movements of animals, Kerley said.
The German shepherd is proving to be an excellent dog to use for scent monitoring.
"The German shepherd is the work horse of Russia,'' Kerley said. "German shepherds have good noses, stable temperaments and will work forever.''
The dogs are also easy to train because they can be rewarded not only with food but also play.
Kerley discussed Russia and her study with students at Cove Elementary School on Tuesday. She graduated from La Grande High School in 1979. She has an undergraduate degree from Oregon State University; a master's degree from the University of Nevada-Reno and a doctorate from the University of Wyoming. She is the daughter of David and Nancy Kerley of La Grande.
The project Kerley is assisting is sponsored by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation's Save The Tiger Fund.
Kerley has been doing research at the Lazovsky State Nature Preserve for 3 years. She earlier tracked tigers via radio telemetry for 4 years in another part of Eastern Russia while with the Siberian Tiger Project.
There are only 350 to 450 Siberian tigers in the world and almost all are in Russia. A few are in China and North Korea, and all came there from Russia.
The population of Siberian tigers has stabilized in recent years but Kerley fears that numbers could fall quickly in the future because the animals the tigers feed on, Sika deer, Manchurian elk and boars, are being decimated by illegal hunting.
"There could be a huge crash in their population because of poachers,'' Kerley said of the deer, elk and boars.
Siberian tigers are also killed by poachers although not in quantities that threaten them because tiger parts are valued highly in places like China. A person can make $10,000 from the sale of one Siberian tiger in China, where they are used for medicinal and other
Siberian tigers are generally not a threat to people. They avoid people and are not confrontational, unlike the man-eating Bengal tiger.
"They shy away from people,'' Kerley said.
Attacks on humans are rare and almost always involve Siberian tigers that have been injured.
In Russia the Siberian tiger is called the Amur tiger. Siberian tigers are the only tigers in the world that live in a cold climate. They are regarded as the largest member of the cat family. Females weigh up to 400 pounds and males can weigh 500 pounds.
Kerley said that tigers have come within a half mile of her town in Lazo, Russia, but people in the small rural community do not feel threatened. Occasionally a tiger will come into town and kill pets. This is why Kerley keeps her dogs in a kennel with a seven-foot high fence.
The landscape that Siberian tigers wander through in Russia's Far East reminds Kerley of Northeast Oregon.
"Seeing a tiger there is almost like seeing one walk through a Northeast Oregon forest,'' she said.