This is Zhorik – he lives just outside the village of Kutuzovka, in Far East Russia, and I went to visit him there recently. He’s a special bloke. As a cub, he was snatched from the wild and sold to a circus. One evening, as he was having dinner, a sharp bone pierced through his cheek, leaving him in unbearable pain and unable to eat.
The Utyos Rehabilitation Centre rescued him and, 19 operations later, his cheek has healed (although it’s still looks a bit gruesome). Yep, 19 rounds of surgery is a lot, but tigers will always rub their cheeks on things – it’s how they deposit pheromones, mark their turf and communicate with each other. So, left to his own instincts, Zhorik keeps opening the wound.
As such, this 6-year-old fella will live out his days at Utyos. But he won’t be lonely with so many wild tigers in the vicinity – the centre occupies 30,000 hectares of the World Heritage Listed Sikhote-Alin wilderness, an area home to about 95 per cent of the world’s remaining population of Amur tigers (estimates say that’s around 450 individuals). In fact, Utyos’ director, Eduard Kruglov, told me a local tigress recently wandered into the rehab complex, lured by Z-Diggedy’s many charms and seeking to mate with him.
The rehab centre was accidentally started up by Eduard’s father, the famous tiger expert and trapper Vladimir Kruglov. Back in 1991, Vladimir came across a weak tiger and decided to take it home, nurse it back to health, then re-release it to the wild. Soon, local villagers started bringing him more animals requiring care, so he fenced off an area near his home on the edge of the Sikhote-Alin, and got to work rehabilitating them – always re-releasing the animals back to the Ussuri taiga where possible, and mostly at his own expense.
Unfortunately Vladimir was killed in a wood-chopping accident in 2005 but today his son, Eduard, and daughter, Lyudmila, continue his incredible work – without any government funding and only limited contributions from NGOs. Right now the centre is caring for Zhorik, some roe deer and orphaned bear cubs – and it’s rereleased literally hundreds of animals since it started.
Utyos is definitely worth a visit if you’re in this part of the world, but don’t expect a fancy gift shop full of fridge magnets – it’s a modest, functional facility that’s making a real difference. If you’d like to contribute to Utyos’ incredible work, please go here and pledge a few pennies.
Travel note: A visit to Utyos is offered as part of a tiger tracking holiday at Alexander Batalov’s ecolodge in the nearby Durminskoye Reserve – and a write up of this incredible place is coming soon to Faunographic. In the meantime, head to their website for info.