Across snow-covered terrain in the Russian Far East, an Amur tiger is on the hunt. The male cat sniffs the air as he follows a trail of footprints among the fir trees. His target is close now, and he shifts into stalking mode, his steps careful and silent in the snow. A leap forward, and his prey finally senses danger, sprinting downhill and veering sharply to one side as it flees the attacker. The tiger loses ground, but he's not giving up the pursuit. Up ahead, his quarry has reached a forest road, and the predator quickens his pace. There's no escape now: one final burst of speed and the tiger makes contact – predator and prey meet in a jumble of snow. Just moments later, it's all over, and the victor drags away his spoils.

If footprints in the snow can tell a story, then this one was waiting for scientists in Russia's Bastak Nature Reserve in the early spring of 2014. When a worker at the reserve stumbled across the carcass of a Eurasian lynx in the forest, the spotted cat's fate was clearly written in the tiger tracks that circled its half-eaten remains. 

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The lynx carcass, surrounded by tiger tracks, was discovered in the snow in the spring of 2014. Image: Dale Miquelle/WCS.

The unusual find immediately piqued the interest of local scientists. In this remote part of Russia, where lynx and tigers must share stretches of territory with carnivores like wolves and Amur leopards, conflicts among uneasy cohabitants are unavoidable – but it’s extremely rare to find evidence of such encounters. And this particular find was the first time that researchers were able to document an Amur tiger (Panthera tigris altaica) stalking and actually killing a Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx).

Retracing pawprints in the snow, the team could piece together the hunt as it unfolded, and their description of it was published online recently. "The fact that we were able to document the entire event, starting from when the tiger first started stalking the lynx, made it much more 'real' and dramatic. Walking in the tracks of the tiger, as he walked in the tracks of the lynx, allowed us to almost relive the event," recalls Dale Miquelle of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Russia Programme, who co-authored the study.

Aside from clues read in footprints, the team also studied the lynx carcass in order to learn more. A necropsy (animal autopsy) revealed that the smaller cat, likely a male, probably died when the tiger’s canine punctured its spinal cord, and subsequent bites indicated that the tiger ate a small portion of his kill before abandoning the remains a day or so later.

But despite evidence of feeding, this cat-on-cat attack wasn’t about food – it was about eliminating competition for food in a shared territory. "These kinds of interactions always have a chance of happening when two carnivores interact ... When one individual has the clear advantage, as this tiger did over the lynx, it is probably not uncommon for the larger one to attempt to kill the smaller. But such events are rare, and the opportunity to document them is even rarer," explains Miquelle.

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Russia's Amur tigers share territory (and available prey) with Amur leopards and Eurasian lynx. Image: AllieKF (left)Simone A. Bertinotti (centre); Jan Rose (right), all Flickr.

Signs of similar carnivore clashes in the Russian wilderness have been recorded in the past, with several known cases of tigers killing both Amur leopards and wolves – but there is still a lot that scientists have to learn about such behaviour and just how common it might be. Yet how these predators interact in a shared ecosystem impacts their survival here. 

The remote forests of Russia’s Far East are some of the last strongholds for endangered predators like Amur tigers and leopards, with both cats only just clawing their way back from the brink of extinction. Aside from the threats of poaching and habitat loss, both must face the challenge of finding enough to eat. 

“Understanding the relationship of these overlapping carnivores is important to understanding what may be limiting the size of the population or population growth,” explains Miquelle.

Studying these rare encounters offers just a small glimpse into how Russia's elusive cats use their vast territories, and it's part of the larger goal of learning how best to protect them.


Top header image: AllieKF, Flickr