It's a rare thing when life so perfectly imitates art. But over the last couple of years a wildlife fairytale has played out in eastern Russia: a rehabilitated tiger is living out her very own version of the Cinderella story.

Zolushka, named after the Russian version of Cinderella, is an Amur tiger. She was found in the winter of 2012 as an orphaned cub, starved and suffering from frostbite. Wildlife officials suspected her mother had been killed at the hands of poachers, so she was taken to a Russian federal tiger rehabilitation centre for care. With assistance from WCS Bronx Zoo Curator Dr Pat Thomas, the facility was designed to minimise human-tiger interaction, so that any tigers brought there would be able to retain a healthy fear of our species – critical in a landscape plagued by tiger poaching.

Bringing the young cub back to health wasn't easy (one-third of her frostbitten tail had to be amputated), but 15 months after her rescue, she began to show signs that she could hunt on her own, making her eligible for release. Zolushka wasn't released just anywhere – she was brought to Russia's Bastak Reserve. Historically part of the Amur tiger's range, the reserve was completely void of the big cats until her arrival. Researchers kept track of her using a GPS collar, and when that began to fail, they re-established contact by using a series of camera traps. They were happy to see she was successfully killing her natural prey: wild boar, red deer and badgers. But Zolushka's story became a true fairytale, complete with a handsome prince, when tracks belonging to an unknown male tiger showed up. Time will tell if the two successfully mate and produce offspring, beginning the long process of recolonising the Bastak Reserve. 

Read Zolushka's full story in this month's issue of Smithsonian Magazine.

Top header image: Brian Mckay/Flickr