Dancing with snow tigers

Irish presenter Liz Bonnin

By David Hennessy

The Irish presenter Liz Bonnin can currently be seen in BBC2’s Operation Snow Tiger, where she looks into how scientists are fighting to protect and preserve the Siberian tigers. The only tigers who survive most of the year in the snow, these animals once roamed across northern Asia but now survive only in a relatively small area in the far east of Russian Siberia. The Siberian tigers are the largest sub-species of tiger and the largest cat in the world, far larger than lions but poaching and logging have pushed them to the brink of extinction.

A tiger expert herself (Liz studied tigers in Nepal for her MSc in wildlife biology), the presenter is joined by Russian biologist Dr. Victor Lukarevsky and the American Dr. Dale Miquelle. Believing there to be only 300-350 or fewer of these tigers left in the wild, the team work to find out if there are any breeding females left, essential for the sub-species’ survival.

Liz, who started her presenting career with RTE on programmes like The Den and Off the Rails, spent six weeks altogether in Siberia with two trips in December and February and tells The Irish World how excited she is to now see the results on screen: “It was fantastic. I can’t actually believe it’s come around and it’s done and we can actually transmit it. It’s been a long project with two trips out to the Russian Far East but I’m really, really proud of what the team have made and I just really hope it’s well received not only because I think it’s a great programme but because it will make people much more aware of the plight of this particular sub-species, so I’m really excited about it.”

How challenging was it to work in a subarctic climate? “It was very cold but we were with the most wonderful team of scientists, Russians and also the wonderful man that is Dale Miquelle who is an American but has lived there for like 20 years. As much as it was quite tough at times because of the conditions, I just had the time of my life really and I don’t mean that it was happy all the time. There were a lot of harrowing moments because of what we were seeing and all the different overwhelming issues that we have to deal with when we’re trying to tackle the problem that is the demise of the tiger, but the whole thing was just the experience of a lifetime and something I’ve dreamed about doing since I was a little girl so it was really a privilege to film that there.”

The filming was emotional for Liz and she shares a story that displays both high and low points: “We weren’t there very many days and we got the call that this four month old tiger cub had been captured and I went straight to the rehab centre where it was brought. It was my first sighting of a wild tiger and it was a female and a cub at that. She was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever set my eyes on but the situation was that yes, we had got her to safety but as much as it was thrilling to look at her, I was really, really saddened by the fact that her mother had been poached, her two siblings were still out in the wild. There was a blizzard at the time and it was just really touch and go whether we would be able to get to them before they died out in the cold. They hadn’t been with their mother long enough to know how to survive out there which is why they were just sitting out there on the road, sitting targets for poachers by the way, so my head was filling with the thrill of seeing a tiger, the fact that we had got her and there was hope to save her but also the circumstances that led to her capture were just a really harsh reminder of what goes on.

Scientists believe there may be as little as 300 Siberian tigers left in the wild

“In the three weeks we were there on our first trip, two other tiger cubs were captured. These were not siblings, they were from two separate mothers who had both been poached. It’s happening at such a fast rate, it’s really saddening and it makes me angry and upset that we’re still allowing this to happen. There’s a lot of poor people out there who need to make a living and we have to take that into a consideration when they are offered so much money to help in the illegal wildlife trade but it’s just really difficult to understand how somebody could actually do that to such an incredibly charismatic and wonderful animal in this incredible setting. For me, walking around these forests, it was such a mesmerising environment and it makes you realise: There are such incredible places and incredible animals on this planet, we can’t let them disappear. Unfortunately however, there are human beings who think it’s acceptable to shoot them between the eyes and sell their skins and sell their bones so it was a really difficult experience for me: Very, very inspirational because of people like Victor and Dale but also very difficult to deal with.

“I think as long as there are people like Victor and Dale, there is hope. But unfortunately poaching is still as prevalent if not more prevalent than ever and that really is something that we just can’t seem to get a handle on because it’s filled with corruption and it’s really down to the government of each country to just put their money where their mouth is and stop this hideous practice albeit with having to tackle something that is deeply culturally ingrained in Asia. The fact that in 2013 we still believe that animal parts can make us more virile is just ludicrous but unfortunately we haven’t quite been able to change that mindset so it can be quite overwhelming to think about where you start focusing your attention to really stop this problem. I think that ultimately it has to be down to poaching and that unfortunately has to come down to governments and policing. It’s something that we in the west can put pressure on governments to do but if it’s not done by each country then the tiger is in trouble and certainly in Russia, that’s the case with the remaining 300 odd Siberian tigers.”

For the full interview, see the June 15 print edition of The Irish World.

Operation Snow Tiger concludes on Sunday June 16 at 8pm on BBC2.

Episode one available on iPlayer.


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