Up-close cameos by one of the world’s most all-around magnificent carnivores aren’t super-common. The Amur tiger, that great painted cat of northeastern Asia, tends to steer clear of people, which only makes its occasional, broad-daylight materialisation out of the woods that much more remarkable.

A video taken in late August in Primorsky Krai of the Russian Far East shows how awe-inspiring such a sighting can be. It comes courtesy of some fishermen who, for one reason or another, drew the full-on attention of an Amur tiger that ended up swiping a bucket of theirs:

(A hat tip’s definitely due here: This video crossed our radar thanks to a tweet by Jonathan Slaght, who’s done plenty of fieldwork in the region: most significantly on that feathered raptorial giant the Blakiston’s fish owl, the focus of Slaght’s new – and National Book Award-nominated – Owls of the Eastern Ice.)

Let’s cover the basics right off the bat. The Amur tiger – known more crudely as the Siberian tiger, though its modern range lies outside the political geography of Siberia proper – is the northernmost existing subspecies of tiger and, along with the Bengal tiger of the Indian subcontinent, the biggest. (A large male might be 200 kilograms or so.) While this royally robed big cat once inhabited a domain extending down the Korean Peninsula and westward into the northeastern reaches of Mongolia, it’s today primarily restricted to the Russian Far East – Primorsky Krai and the southern sector of Khabarovsk Krai – as well as a smidgen of Northeast China along the Russian border. That range harbours around 500 Amur tigers.

Wildlife Conservation Society Russia Program Director Dr. Dale Miquelle, a leading authority on the Amur tiger, said that sightings such as the fishermen’s aren’t commonplace: He knows people who’ve spent years in Amur-tiger country and have never seen the beast, and he himself – with years of fieldwork on the animal under his belt – has only had entirely random run-ins a handful of times. “These types of encounters are rare,” he said, “but with everyone carrying telephones with cameras these days, when these encounters do happen, there’s a good chance someone will be filming it.”

The apparent boldness of the tiger may have any number of explanations. Another expert with loads of hands-on experience with the Amur tiger, Dr. John Goodrich, Panthera’s Chief Scientist and senior director of its Tiger Program, said one possibility is that this individual was a young, dispersing male afoot in search of territory.

“They’ll tend to show much more bold, exploratory behaviours than other tigers,” Goodrich said of these wide-ranging vagabonds. The footage might show a tiger “that’s just curious and messing around, as young males will do.”

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Young, dispersing male tigers in search of territory tend to exhibit bolder behaviour.

Miquelle noted that tigresses in heat can also be a bit more conspicuous. “It seems like females in heat are a little more curious and less afraid.” He also pointed out, “There are also some situations that provoke curiosity in tigers,” and that hunger – perhaps prompted by a smelly fish bucket – might have been a motivating factor.

Furthermore, Amur tigers – despite their overall shyness around people – have some of that good old-fashioned apex-predator swagger going. As the dominant carnivore in the ecosystem, Miquelle said, “it is not surprising that they have a ‘king of the forest’ attitude, even during the occasional encounters with humans.” Besides humans, the only critter an Amur tiger might yield ground to on a regular basis would be a big male brown bear.

There is a more disturbing possibility for this bucket-thieving tiger’s confidence: It may have canine distemper, though that’s maybe less likely than the aforementioned interpretations. Canine distemper virus (CDV), which can afflict a wide variety of carnivores and was first documented in wild felids during a severe outbreak among Serengeti lions in 1994, can manifest as dulled motor skills, fever, impaired breathing, and even death. It seems to have shown up in Amur tigers in the early 2000s. Both Goodrich and Miquelle stressed the cat in the footage doesn’t show any clear outward symptoms of the virus, aside from its overall unafraid demeanour. “It’s acting very alert,” Goodrich said. “It clearly sees the people.”

That said, Goodrich said some CDV-infected tigers often seem unafraid and can exhibit all-around aberrant behaviour. “A number of the tigers we’ve seen with canine distemper don’t show fear around people, and can do strange things – like picking up a plastic bucket and walking away with it.”

He said one infected tiger he dealt with, “a beautiful, healthy young female,” padded right into a village and sat down on its main drag. “She looked like a normal tiger, but all her sensory organs had shut down.” Another tiger saddled with CDV walked directly up to an ice-fisherman and killed him, its tracks showing no evidence of normal stalking behaviour. Attacks on humans by Amur tigers are quite rare.

Goodrich pointed us to this video, likely of a CDV-afflicted tiger:

As a 2015 Integrative Biology study noted, wildlife populations at such low levels as Amur tigers aren’t really the best candidates for maintaining CDV. But the presence of other, more numerous hosts may provide a persistent reservoir that could potentially chronically spread to local tigers. In the Russian Far East, such potential hosts include domestic dogs as well as other wild carnivores such as raccoon dogs, red foxes, and sables – all of which, dogs very much included, are preyed upon by Amur tigers.

Miquelle and Goodrich were among the coauthors on a major PLOS One paper in 2014 assessing the potential impacts of CDV on Amur tigers. The study – which modelled infection pathways from domestic dogs and wild carnivores to tigers via predation, and from tiger to tiger via intraspecific interactions – suggested the disease could be a significant threat indeed, given the small size of existing tiger populations in Russia. This analysis used the strictly protected Sikhote-Alin Biosphere Zapovednik as well as its buffer zone – a roughly 500,000-hectare stretch of habitat – as its study area; the authors suggested some 70 percent of tigers in the zapovednik roamed territories that extended outside its bounds, thus conceivably exposing them to dogs (or, maybe better stated, exposing dogs to said tigers).

“Humans and tigers don’t peacefully coexist, just like humans and grizzly bears don’t coexist ... There’ll always be conflict there, though it can be minimised through well-designed interventions.”

The work suggested that CDV – which has been documented in all countries currently supporting tigers – could be an even more significant threat for other tiger populations more hemmed in by high human (and dog) densities.

But back to our Primorsky Krai footage. The response of the fishermen to this tiger’s appearance was, all things considered, pretty encouraging, at least as recorded in the video: respectful, impressed, and seemingly good-humoured at the loss of their bucket. That’s not necessarily the go-to reaction to such a formidable carnivore.

“Humans and tigers don’t peacefully coexist, just like humans and grizzly bears don’t coexist,” Goodrich said. “There’ll always be conflict there, though it can be minimised through well-designed interventions.”

On that count, the Amur tiger is generally better off than other populations of Panthera tigris: Its primary remaining stronghold of the Russian Far East mostly comprises remote forests with high habitat connectivity and a relatively low human footprint – which is certainly not the case for the majority of the world’s wild tigers. The Sikhote-Alin Mountains, the core of the Amur subspecies’ remaining range, is a globally significant refuge. “It’s the largest intact habitat for tigers in the world,” Miquelle said, and likely has the lowest human population density of any tiger landscape.

That said, even in this lightly settled tiger realm, humans pose the mighty striped cat’s greatest threat. “Even though the human density is low,” Miquelle said, “there’s pretty intensive use of the forest for logging and mining.” Logging in and of itself isn’t necessarily an entirely losing card for Amur tigers: Logged woods may, through their early-successional productivity, attract the hoofed mammals tigers most target.

But the “Achilles heel” of the issue, as Miquelle calls it, is the fact that road-building tends to go hand in hand with timber harvest, which in turn boosts access for poachers into what was once far-flung backcountry. There’s been, Miquelle emphasises, a “scary growth of the road network” in the region over the past couple of decades. (Logging in the Sikhote-Alin Mountains is a similarly mixed-bag sort of issue for the Siberian musk deer.)

Top header image: Christopher Kray, Flickr