Zoo tigers and tiger conservation
Tigers in zoos contribute to conservation in four ways; preserving genetic diversity over time, educating and informing the general public, fund-raising and information gathering.
Contributions in all of these areas are exponentially increased if the institution concerned is working in a co-ordinated fashion with other zoos, and the first goal cannot in fact be served at all in isolation.
ZSL runs two zoos:
Six hundred million people a year visit zoos worldwide - more than go to football matches - and every zoo with tigers has a responsibility to ensure the public learn about the factors endangering them and are encouraged to help, whether the public are in the West where most funding is generated or in Asia where tigers originate. TV and books are simply no substitute for the living, breathing, roaring animal.
Good information is essential for good education and the tiger European Endangered Species Programme (EEP) ensures that up-to-date information is circulated to all participants. It has also funded good tiger graphics for zoos throughout Russia and Thailand to display to their visiting public.
The tiger EEP also encourages participants to raise funds for tigers. In 1996 a concerted effort by 35 UK Zoo Federation Zoos raised over £75,000 for wild tiger projects. This process continues; zoos in the EEP can now donate directly to the wild via '21st Century Tiger', an agency set up by ZSL and Global Tiger Patrol.
In 2003/04 the European Association of Zoos and Aquariums (EAZA) ran a coordinated ‘Tiger Campaign’ and in 2004 the Australasian association did the same. All funds went to selected projects through 21st Century Tiger. By the time the campaign closed, the grand total was over three-quarters of a million euros.
Zoo tiger populations have made great contributions towards understanding many aspects of tiger biology and management.
Veterinary care is an obvious area; without knowledge on how to safely anaesthetise tigers, radio-tracking studies in the wild would not be possible. Co-operation and co-ordination is the key here; information must be centrally compiled and made available to those who need it.
The tiger EEP has collected paw-print measurements from known-age zoo tigers to help standardise tiger surveys where wild tigers are identified from their tracks, and provided faecal samples to assist in finding DNA markers to use in identifying individual wild tigers from their faeces. Such requests for assistance from tiger conservationists in the field are of course made via the breeding programmes and there are good links between the tiger EEP and field projects around the world.
|Conservation breeding - the ‘genetic lifeboat'|
There are five subspecies of tigers left in the world - these are Indian (Bengal), Amur (Siberian), Sumatran, Indochinese and South China tigers.
The vast majority of captive tigers are known hybrids or of unknown origin and so are not useful for conservation breeding purposes. Only tigers whose single subspecies ancestry can be traced back through written records can be included in conservation breeding programmes.
The validity of the existing taxonomic divisions for tigers is by no means certain, but the point as far as conservationists are concerned is that tigers have evolved a suite of genetic adaptations to conditions across their range, and our conservation actions both in the wild and in zoos should seek to preserve these.
It is a common misconception that the more tigers are born in captivity, the better. A little thought makes it clear that this cannot be true. Good quality tiger enclosures are spacious and relatively expensive to build and so there is a limited supply of tiger space in zoos. Tigers breed extremely well in captivity and grow up quickly - after two years or less, youngsters and their parents will fight and must be separated.
It follows that if the zoo world as a whole wishes to always be able to find good homes for tigers born in its zoos, it must take steps to regulate breeding so that just enough cubs are born each year to replace tigers that die. This is part of the role of the European programme, every year each zoo in the programme is advised whether or not it should breed from its tigers. Even for zoos with purebred tigers, we must carefully choose the most genetically suitable pairings in order to preserve the maximum amount of genetic diversity.
Such managed zoo populations serve as a 'genetic reservoir’ in case of future need to supplement wild tiger populations or reintroduce tigers to areas from which they have vanished.
However, it must be stressed that there is no intent to reintroduce tigers in the foreseeable future. Necessary preconditions such as elimination of the causes of decline are a very long way from fulfilled as yet. Further, it is unlikely that any tiger born and raised in a zoo will ever be suitable for release. Should the time ever come, cubs born to zoo tigers in natural habitat enclosures and raised there, with access to live prey and minimum contact with humans would be much more suitable.
In the meantime, the genetic management strategy outlined above is essential to maintain healthy populations of captive tigers so that they can continue to fulfill ALL the conservation roles laid down here into the 21st century — not just the genetic lifeboat one.
Give Tigers a Tomorrow
Visit Tiger Territory at ZSL London Zoo and your ticket will help ZSL to continue working in Sumatra to save this charismatic carnivore.