03/29/1993 at 01:00 AM EST
THE 6,400-MILE FLIGHT FROM KHABAROVSK, Siberia, to Omaha took 36 hours, so Khuntami and his sister, Nadirzda, arrived jet-lagged, cranky, even snarly. Needing to chill out, the two Siberian tiger cubs went for a romp in the snow.
The 4-month-old felines had come from a wildlife sanctuary to Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo, in the first known transfer of Siberian tigers directly from the wild to a U.S. zoo.
In the last few years the breakup of the Soviet Union has ended controls that prevented poaching and timber cutting in the taiga, the vast pine forest that is the tiger's habitat. As a result, the tiger population, now between 200 and 400, has been diminishing by up to 50 a year.
Last year, Maurice Hornocker, director of the Idaho-based Hornocker Wildlife Research Institute, and wildlife biologist Howard Quigley set up a joint American-Russian project to study the tiger. In late November a radio transmitter attached to a 252-lb. female named Lena began to emit a stationary signal. Field-worker Dale Miquelle found the transmitter collar in a snowbank. Lena, the victim of poachers, had vanished. Spotting small paw prints, Miquelle went searching for cubs. Two days later he found four of them, of which two—Nadirzda and Khuntami—survived with the help of nutrients flown in by veterinarian Kathy Quigley, Howard's wife.
With the agreement of Russian scientists, it was decided that the cubs would live in the U.S. The Doorly zoo was picked because of its expertise in tiger care and reproduction. (In 1990 it produced the world's first test-tube tiger cubs.)
When they reach maturity, Nadirzda and Khuntami will be bred with other Siberians, and, it is hoped, Lena's progeny will thrive—far from the perilous taiga.