The pair of Malayan Tigers expected to come to Tucson once the Reid Park Zoo expansion is complete will be some of the most stunningly beautiful, most beloved, and most endangered creatures on the planet. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums has honored our Zoo by selecting them to receive a breeding pair of these amazing animals. The male and female will live in lush adjoining habitats, with plenty of room to climb, to swim, to hide, to stalk, and loll about. Tigers are solitary in the wild, so the pair will meet only during breeding season, and there are high hopes that they will be able to increase the population of their species. And imagine seeing a litter of 2-5 tiger cubs frolicking right here in Tucson, complete with fearsome itty-bitty growling and amazing mini-pouncing!
This is crucial, since there are only an estimated 250-340 Malayan Tigers left in the wild, and of those, only 80-120 are breeding adults. If humans don’t act now to save them they will join the three tiger subspecies already lost to extinction: the Bali Tiger, the Caspian Tiger, and the Javan Tiger. The Malayan Tiger is listed as critically endangered by the IUCN, along with its cousins the Sumatran Tiger and the South China Tiger, already believed to be extinct in the wild. The status of tigers in the wild is heartbreaking – but more about that later.
They’re small, for tigers
Tigers are the largest species of cat in the world – bigger even than lions. The Malayan Tiger is one of the smallest subspecies of mainland tiger, practically puny as tigers go! Males are a mere 8 feet long from nose to tail, and weigh only about 250 – 300 pounds. The females are positively dainty – only 7 feet long altogether, and weigh in at a supermodel-slim 170-240 pounds. Compare this to the Siberian Tiger, also called the Amur Tiger, which measures up to 10.5 feet long and can weigh 660 pounds.
Nonetheless, being in the presence of a Malayan Tiger (they seem plenty big compared to us) is an unforgettable and humbling experience. As in all species of tiger, each individual has a unique stripe pattern, which assists researchers in determining their numbers in the wild. Without this fur, it might be very difficult to distinguish a tiger from a lion, its closest relative. Tigers have strong jaws, sharp teeth, and a muscular build. They are excellent at climbing and swimming (they have partially webbed toes), a favorite pastime at the Reid Park Zoo, especially in the summer heat. In the wild, a Malayan Tiger will not hesitate to cross even a rapidly flowing river in order to pursue its prey.
As for hunting, their large eyes give them excellent vision for this typically nocturnal activity. Malayan Tigers are obligate carnivores and favorite prey includes Muntjac and other deer, wild boar and bearded pigs, and tapir. The tigers are ambush predators, relying on camouflage, stealth, distance, and patience to locate and subdue their prey. If necessary, they may also pursue very young offspring of much larger animals such as elephants, rhinos, or bears. Though solitary, the tigers are known to hunt in groups when this is advantageous. A Malayan Tiger may make a kill once every three or four days, and tries to eat as much of its prey as possible in one meal.
Bring on the cubs!
Since male and female Malayan Tigers only meet and “socialize” during breeding season, a female in estrus starts to mark trees with urine and initiates a series of loud calls to signal her receptiveness to a male. It’s definitely a short-term relationship, however; the male will impregnate the female, then go his separate way. After a 3-4 month gestation period, a litter(2 to 5) of extremely helpless cubs will be born and cared for by their mother for the next 18 months to two years.
During that time, the frisky cubs practice all their tiger skills, chasing, pouncing, wrestling, and most importantly, growling as ferociously as possible the whole time! They also like to ambush each other and their poor tired mother, who must leave them alone while she hunts. Unfortunately, only about half of the tiger cubs born in the wild survive their first year, because like the young of all species, they are vulnerable to predators, especially when the mother isn’t present, and are also susceptible to disease and accidents in the forests and jungles where they grow up. All other things being equal, this high level of infant mortality for the Malayan Tiger cubs would not contribute to the reduction of numbers for the species, but all things are NOT equal, not at all.
Enter the humans
First of all, tigers are apex predators, and have no natural enemies in the animal kingdom. Humans are entirely responsible for their dramatic decline in the wild. It’s about habitat. Panthera, an organization working on the conservation of big cats, reports that tiger habitat worldwide has declined 96% – and 40% of that decline has been in just the past decade.
Where has all that territory gone? Well, in Southeast Asia, where the Malayan Tigers live in dense tropical forests, more than 18,000 square miles of forest was lost to monoculture plantations for the production of palm oil, just between 2000 – 2012. The conversion of forest to plantation and agricultural land not only affects the tigers, it affects biodiversity in the region, creating shortage of prey animals all the way down to the smallest insect.
But perhaps more disturbing is the illegal wildlife trade, which has been especially damaging to Malayan Tigers. The tigers are prized by trophy hunters (though this is illegal in Malaysia) and tigers are often poached to obtain ingredients for traditional medicines in Asia. They are also hunted for “décor” items.
But we’re waking up
Fortunately, advocacy organizations around the world are feeling the urgency and stepping up their efforts toward the conservation of tigers in the wild. Tigers once numbered around 100,000 in the wilds of Asia, but today researchers estimate only about 3,900 remain. Zoos around the world, just like the Reid Park Zoo, are working hard to preserve the species. Governments are cracking down on poaching, and NGOs are providing human resources to patrol and protect tiger habitats, as well as establishing preserves for the tigers and all the animals that naturally flourish in the same territories. Organizations such as the World Wildlife Federation (WWF) are working with communities who live in proximity to tigers to not only farm and eat in ways that may mitigate climate change, but to better protect livestock so as to limit conflict between humans and tigers. Also, members of these communities are now finding employment through ecotourism rather than poaching.
It remains to be seen if we are in time to save the remaining six subspecies of tigers on earth. But we can help – for example, we can learn about palm oil, an ingredient used in many of the products we rely on and purchase daily. Sustainably produced palm oil is part of the deforestation solution – and organizations such as the RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) offers an app you can use in the grocery store to guide your purchases! You can also plan to visit and support zoos, like the Reid Park Zoo, who will be participating in a breeding program for Malayan Tigers. Part of having these critically endangered creatures is a commitment to financially support in-situ conservation efforts, and also to spread the word about the plight of tigers and how we can help. So be a part of the solution and come to the Pathway to Asia at the Reid Park Zoo, as soon as it’s complete. As a bonus, you’ll be in the presence of breathtaking Malayan Tigers, and if we’re lucky, you may get to see some incredibly cute little ones stalking and pouncing!