Trainers at the Indianapolis Zoo share a passion for wild things and wild places. For Jill Barker, Amur tigers have always held a special place in her heart. The same devotion that’s seen her care for cubs and create bonds with the cats at the Zoo for nine years recently took her into the forests of Russia to extend her knowledge and abilities on behalf of the endangered species.
Securing a grant through the Zoo’s Keeper Experience Fund, Jill was able to spend two weeks with the Amur Tiger Conservation Project in southeast Primorsky Krai in Russia learning under the wing of Dr. Linda Kerley.
“We as keepers do what we do because there are people like Dr. Kerley doing what she does,” Jill said. “I thought it would be an incredible experience to get to actually see the habitat that tigers live in, spend the day with Linda and see what it takes to save this species.”
The Indianapolis Zoo supports Linda’s project (part of the Zoological Society of London) through its conservation grants program, providing critical funds for population monitoring, in addition to anti-poaching management and wildlife disease monitoring.
Through 2019, the work being done in the park has revealed a stable population and good reproduction in the area. The aim is a continued focus on combating threats, most importantly poaching and wildfires, and increasing tiger and prey numbers.
Much of Jill’s time was spent in the field, checking camera traps across different areas — beaches along the coast of the Sea of Japan and those deep in the forest — looking for fresh signs of tigers like scrapes on the ground, feces, scent-marked trees and claw marks.
On her second day, only 12 hours separated Jill’s footsteps on a secluded beach with those of a young female tiger. The territory was full of tracks, an obvious body print from where the tiger had rolled on her back and further along, Jill and Linda found two sets of tracks that met up and circled around each other, evidence that a male had likely been in the area too.
When she wasn’t rock hopping around ridges looking for tracks, Jill also had the opportunity to go to the only part of the country where critically endangered Amur leopards are found and visit a rehabilitation center that has successfully rereleased tigers and bears into the wild.
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