A Siberian tiger named Zolushka — Russian for Cinderella — became the first rehabilitated tiger in history to mate and give birth in the wild, the Wildlife Conservation Society announced.
"Break out the cigars! Cinderella has babies!" the WCS declared in what is being hailed as a conservation success story.
The Siberian tiger and its two cubs were captured in rare camera-trap video in the Bastak Reserve where the population of Siberian tigers was zero for 40 years until Zolushka was released there two years ago.
Now the population is four, thanks to the "miraculous" relocation of a lone wild male, which made a 124-mile trek west from the northern-most portions of the current tiger range in Russia.
"The story of this Cinderella is no fairy tale," WCS president and CEO Cristian Samper said. "The discovery of Zolushka's cubs is real proof that conservation on the ground, conducted by groups working in partnership, can and does work. Zolushka and her cubs are proof that tiger habitat lost long ago is coming back in the Russian Far East."
In February 2012, hunters discovered a starving 4-month-old Siberian cub in the southwestern portion of Primorskii Krai, one of the last Siberian tiger strongholds. The cub was taken to a local wildlife manager, who nursed it back to health before transferring it to the Aleksayevka Rehabilitation Center.
Officials kept the cub away from humans so it wouldn't acclimate to them, and fed it live prey so it could learn to hunt.
Once Zolushka reached 20 months old, the time tiger cubs usually part from their mothers, it was taken to the Bastak Reserve and released with a collar so it could be tracked. That was in May 2013.
WCS staff spent much time tracking the Siberian tiger to ensure it was acclimating to life in the wild. It did fine as it discovered an abundance of badgers, wild boar and red deer.
The winter after her release, according to Smithsonian, tracks of Zolushka and a male lion were discovered together. But the WCS reported that there was still a long wait as Zolushka still needed to mature and become ready for motherhood.
Eventually, that day came and Zolushka made history.
"This is a great day for Bastak Reserve," said Aleksandr Yuryevich Kalinin, the director of the protected area. "This demonstrates that there is still suitable habitat for tigers in the Pri-Amur region of the Russian Far East, and there is a place for tigers here."
WCS Russia director Dale Miquelle added, "This is a watershed event not just for Zolushka, but for the entire population of Amur tigers [another term for Siberian tigers]. 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."
But Miquelle admitted to National Geographic that questions remain.
"This birth demonstrates that it's possible to take abandoned cubs and reintroduce them to live a normal life," he said. "But one of the big questions now is whether this tiger can raise cubs without having had her own mother."
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