Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Nordic Ark, July 12th 2008. Part 30

Q: What is the cutest thing in the whole entire world?
A: Tiger babies!!!

Does the Ark have tiger babies??? ... No.

That is, not yet!! In about a year and a half, or two years, they may. Yes, really! I know much more about the tigers at the Ark than about any of the other animals, because when we got to the lookout point by the tiger enclosure there was a guide there explaining about the tigers to a group of people who - I guess - maybe had paid for a guided tour.

I pretended to be looking at the enclosure while I slowly edged my way closer to the guide to hear what she was saying. Like, I just accidentally happen to be standing within earshot, I'm not actually that interested or anything. I mean, I can tell that you're talking and all, but I'm basically up here for the view.

The species of tiger kept at the Ark is the Siberian tiger (Panthera tigris altaica) (I knew that). It is critically endangered :-( - there aren't more than about 500 individuals left in the wild. (I hate humans.) This species is not only the largest tiger species in the world, but the largest feline, full stop. There used to be nine tiger species - or, OK, subspecies - but three of them are now extinct. (Did I mention that I hate humans?) There was this great illustration of that by the enclosure, with pictures of all nine subspecies ranged in size, and the extinct ones in black and white. V. effective.

The Ark started out with one tiger. I mean, when they first started keeping them. His name is Uri and he's ... as I recall he's 4 years old now. We saw him, but only at a distance, he was lying in the shade. Understandably. It would have been awesome (and I do mean that) to get to see him up close, but we weren't surprised to see that his energy level was low on a day that hot. Let me put it this way, we were glad we'd brought binoculars.

Can you see him? :-)

As I said the Ark does a lot of work on conservation and breeding. They were very eager to be involved in the tiger breeding program, all the more so because Uri is what they call a 'high quality male'. Ie, his genetic material is excellent. The whole genetics thing is so difficult when it comes to endangered species in captivity - they need to breed them, but they also need to keep the gene pool as deep as possible. That's where the coordinators come in. There is one for every species and s/he collects and collates all the info available on captive specimens worldwide. The coordinator determines which individuals are to be kept at which zoo, which are to breed with which and when breeding should take place. The Ark of course applied to be assigned a female when one should become available.

One thing that is never done in these breeding programs is to actively take animals from the wild to introduce new genetic material. Obviously, getting new genes into the programs is a good thing, for the program and for the species. But being taken into captivity is a bad thing, for the individual animals. So it isn't done. But sometimes it happens anyway.

About a year and a half ago a female Siberian tiger cub was discovered wandering around alone and half starved. I don't remember where. She was about four months old. The mother was discovered to have been killed in some freak accident or something. So the options were: kill the cub there, let the cub die on its own (starvation), or take the cub into captivity. Obviously a no-brainer. She was given the name Sparta and was quickly nursed back to health. And the process began of determining where she would live - or in other words, who would father her future cubs. Zoos all over the world (the ones with Siberian tigers) were falling over themselves in their eagerness to get hold of her. It is NOT every day that a completely 'new' Siberian tiger comes into the 'available pool' like that. It almost never happens, apparently. So the coordinator had an important job to do.

What they do, obviously, is to match good genes to good genes. As the guide said, in reference to their own animal, 'a high-quality male deserves a high-quality female'. And Sparta is absolutely top quality, the best of the best. :-) So it was a big decision. I can't even imagine the scenes at the Ark when they were given the news that they would have to redo their tiger enclosure, because Uri had been chosen to father Sparta's cubs. :-D They now live in separate but adjacent enclosures - she is still about a year away from her sexual maturity and so Uri as of yet is too dangerous to her for them to be allowed to share an enclosure. But they have been introduced to each other and every time they've had contact (through a fence or through bars) it's gone very well. So hopes are high. To the extent that a new tiger house, with a pond, is under construction at the Ark now; it'll be finished next summer.

And the summer after that, maybe there will be TIGER BABIES ... !!! :-D

Great enclosures (again).

(Photo credit: 1, 3: KAS 2, 4-5: C.)