Last week Vladimir Putin released Kuzya, complete with electronic tracking device, but forgot to tell her she was to stay in Russia.
Shortly after she swam across the freezing Amur river into China where she stopped for supper at a Chinese chicken farm take-away. She left nothing but a few feathers and probably ….. her footprints.
Kuzya is one of the few remaining Amur tigers in Russia. This population ranges between Russia and China in the border areas of the remote Chinese north-east. Data are desperately needed on numbers and whereabouts if these beautiful animals and their unique habitats are to be protected.
For the moment Kuzya’s electronic tagging device allows Russian and Chinese conservationists to monitor her movements. But electronic transmitter collars are notoriously unreliable, very expensive and can be harmful to the animals that carry them.
When the collar fails, how will we know if Kuzya has survived, or which nationality she has decided to adopt?
Back to the scene of the crime. Kuzya’s footprints could provide all the information we need.WildTrack (wildtrack.org), working in the Pimm Lab at Duke University and with the JMP software from the SAS Institute, has developed a footprint identification technique (FIT) that can literally FIT the big cat to her prints.
FIT can identify individuals and sex with > 90% accuracy, is cost-effective, and footprint images could easily be snapped by, say, the aggrieved owner of the chicken farm, or a local villager.
Together with their Chinese colleague, Dr Jiang, Director of the Chinese State Administration Feline Research Centre, and his student Jiayin Gu, WildTrack has identified 44 Amur tiger and is now applying this technique to allow tigers like Kuzya freedom to roam without a passport.
We thank National Geographic for its support of our work to develop FIT.