The World

Vladimir Putin’s Tiger Is Lost in China

Putin attaches a satellite transmitter to a (different) tiger on Aug. 31, 2008.

Photo by Alexey Druzhinin/AFP/Getty Images

If you happen to be traipsing about China’s Heilongjiang province and come across a lost-looking Siberian tiger, the Kremlin would like it back.

Kuzya, a tiger that was personally released back into the wild by Russian President Vladimir Putin, has caused something of an international incident by wading across the Amur River that separates Russia from China.* Russian authorities, who have tracked Kuzya’s 300-mile wanderings by radio transmitter, are worried about his safety in China, where poached tiger carcasses can fetch up to $10,000 on the black market. There are also concerns that he won’t make it back into Russia before winter turns the river into impassable icy slush.

There are only about 400 to 500 Siberian tigers left in the wild, and their protection has been a passion project for Putin. (It’s a cause that dovetails nicely with the president’s penchant for manly outdoor photo ops.) Kuzya was part of a group of cubs that were rescued after their mother was killed by a poacher. Putin presided over their release into the wild at an event in May.

The Siberian tiger is particularly endangered in China, where there are thought to be only a few dozen left. At a time when the two countries are emphasizing close ties amid strained relations between Russia and the West, it would be extremely embarrassing for China if anything were to happen to “Putin’s tiger.” Chinese authorities have set up more than 60 cameras in hopes of spotting him, and may have gotten their first lead in the case on Saturday, when hair, feces, and tracks were spotted in far northeastern Heilongjiang. But there are now also worries that Kuzya’s sister, Ilona, may be headed for the border in an area more heavily inhabited by people.

Despite all the jokes about Kuzya defecting or attempting to annex northern China on Putin’s behalf, the tigers, of course, don’t realize what country they’re in. It’s not unusual for them to move back and forth across the river in search of food.

But, as I wrote for Foreign Policy back in 2010, animals are sometimes aware of international borders. The most famous case is probably that of the Ahornia deer, the last Europeans still living inside the Iron Curtain. The deer live in the forests along the German-Czech border, now a nature preserve. During the Cold War, though, an electrified fence demarcated the border between what was then West Germany and Czechoslovakia. The fence is long gone, but more than 20 years later, the deer still won’t cross where it once stood.

Animals can establish a kind of national identity as well. Researchers at the University of Haifa have observed that Israeli gerbils behave far more cautiously than their counterparts who live just a few miles away in Jordan. This is likely due to the more industrialized agriculture on the Israeli side of the border.

Hopefully Kuzya, then, can make it back to friendlier environs before experiencing too much in the way of physical danger or culture shock.

*Correction, Oct. 13, 2014: This post originally misspelled Amur River.