Almost Gone

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!   

Excellence and innovation are hallmarks of the care that the animals at the Reid Park Zoo receive every day from the Zoo’s Animal Care Staff. Whether it’s training a rhinoceros to allow a staff member to draw blood for the animal’s health and veterinary care, inventing a life-saving technique to treat a congenital kidney problem in an African lion, or hundreds of things staff members do to enhance the animals’ lives, the Zoo and its staff are guided by deep care, excellence, and innovation. 

A good example of excellence and innovation in the animals’ care is what is called “enrichment.” Enrichment refers to objects or activities that bring out an animal’s natural behaviors and cognitive engagement – often, the animal’s puzzle-solving skills. Just like in people, cognitive engagement and physical activity are important for keeping the Zoo’s animals mentally and physically robust. Zoo animals can’t join book clubs, play video games, or do crossword puzzles, but they can be stimulated to explore. For instance, novel scents dotted about in a habitat are very stimulating for an animal whose species naturally depends on an acute sense of smell. Objects that an animal can safely bat around or pounce on or pry open to get a treat are favorite examples of enrichment. Enrichment can even be as straightforward as rearranging permanent structures in an animal’s habitat. These kinds of things stimulate the animals’ senses and brains, and they engage the animals’ natural behaviors. Enrichment is so important to the health of the animals that the Reid Park Zoo has a staff member whose whole job is to oversee animal enrichment for the Zoo’s animals – a sort of Animal Enrichment Czar! (The real title is Animal Welfare Specialist.) 

Reid Park Zoo recently unveiled an exciting new invention for animal enrichment! You can look for it the next time you visit the Zoo. This new device is the fruit of a new collaboration between the Zoo’s “Animal Enrichment Czar” and a team of engineering students at the University of Arizona. Reid Park Zoo and the UA already have long-standing, productive collaborations in Animal Science and more recently in veterinary medicine, and this collaboration with Engineering adds a whole new dimension to those. 

The new enrichment device is getting its first use with Bella, Reid Park Zoo’s jaguar. If you haven’t seen Bella yet, her name suits her perfectly – she is absolutely beautiful! Bella already receives many types of enrichment. She has tree trunks to climb on, a pool of water to plunge into, and she is periodically given an oxtail dangling from a tree trunk high above the ground. For the oxtail, Bella needs to use her sharp vision to spot the treat and then has to figure out whether to use her impressive jumping skill or her climbing skill as the best way to get at the treat. 

What does the new enrichment device add to this? The new device has two modules, both placed just outside Bella’s habitat. The first module uses an electronic sensor to detect Bella’s presence nearby. When she approaches the sensor, the first module triggers the activation of a second module. The second module is where the fun comes in! One secondary module has a blower with a nylon sock-puppet attached to it. When the blower turns on, the sock-puppet pops up a few feet high and begins flopping and waving around. Visually tracking moving objects is an essential behavior for jaguars in the wild, and this dancing sock-puppet fully engages that behavior in Bella – she visually locks on to the puppet and follows every move. Another secondary module that the UA students designed and fabricated blows bubbles into Bella’s habitat. Bella loves the bubbles! 

You might have seen this exciting device for animal enrichment when it was featured on the local TV news. The UA Engineering students who designed and built the new device – who are referred to as “Team 21034” – won $5,000 and the Raytheon Award for Overall Design in this year’s Craig M. Berge Design Day Competition at the UA. The UA students, the Zoo, and Bella all won here! 

A great feature of this new enrichment device is that Bella can control the delivery of the enrichment herself, by figuring out how to move in ways that activate the device. It makes her overall environment more challenging and more fun. Another nice aspect is that the device is small enough to be easily moved to other animals’ habitats. The system also allows the creation of new secondary modules that could be tailored to the particular skills and behaviors of other Zoo animals, perhaps to make a sound or show a visual display, for example. Imagine the fun the Zoo’s animal care staff will have in coming up with different secondary modules for the different animals! And through its membership in the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, Reid Park Zoo may be able to share the design of the new device with other AZA-accredited zoos around the country. 

Excellence and innovation – hallmarks of the Reid Park Zoo and the guiding principles for the design of the new Reid Park Zoo expansion!

The King of Beasts! The Queen of Beasts! Symbol of Africa and of the wild. Symbol of power and strength. Top of the food chain. Fierce. Playful. Gentle. Ferocious. Majestic. Sleepy. Lions have fascinated people from the beginning of recorded history. They have starred in books, movies, songs, and art. Fans of the Lion King know that Simba, the Swahili word for lion, also means “king,” “strong,” and “determined.” In English, to call someone “lionhearted” means that he or she is courageous and strong.  

Physical description

You have seen pictures of lions in books or movies, and maybe you have seen living lions in a zoo. How would you describe what a lion looks like? A large animal with short, tan fur, roughly the size of a tapir and smaller than a zebra? Looks a bit like a big, tall housecat? Has a muscular body and limbs, and a deep chest? A short neck, and a round head with short ears and eyes that face forward? Sharp, retractable claws and large canine teeth? Some with extra-long hair around their necks and shoulders? All correct descriptions of these iconic and beloved creatures!

Size

African lions are the second-largest of the large cat genus, Panthera, which also includes tigers, jaguars, and leopards. Lions are taller than tigers, but not as long or as heavy. Adult female lions (often called lionesses) usually weigh 265 to 395 pounds – a lot heavier than a housecat! – and stand almost 3½ feet tall at the shoulder – about the height of a 4- or 5-year-old girl or boy. Female lions are usually 4½ to 5½ feet long in the body. Male lions are usually bigger than females – 330 to 550 pounds, 5½ to 8 feet long in the body, and 4 feet tall at the shoulder. 

Both females and males have tails that are 2 to 3 feet long and have a dark tuft of fur at the tip. The difference in size between females and males is an example of something called “sexual dimorphism.” Another aspect of sexual dimorphism in African Lions is that male lions have impressive manes – a collar of longer, thicker, often darker fur that covers their necks and shoulders. Female and male lions differ much more than females and males of other large cat species. 

Native range and habitat

There are two subspecies of lion, African lions and Asiatic lions. Almost all wild Asiatic lions live in a single reserve (protected area) in India, and there are only a few hundred of them. Wild African lions number in the thousands and also live in reserves or national parks. There a few small reserves with lions in central and western Africa, but most African lions live in protected reserves in eastern and southern Africa. Within these areas, lions can adapt to savannah, grassland, open woodlands, or even semi-desert – essentially any habitat where they can find cover for hunting. 

Social structure

African lions are the most social of all the cats. They usually live in groups called prides that can have as many as a few dozen members. A pride usually has several adult females that are related to each other, one or more unrelated adult males, and several cubs and sub-adults. Female lions often stay in their mother’s pride for life. Males leave the pride at sexual maturity and take over another pride or form a new pride of their own. 

African lions are territorial. They declare their territory by scent-marking with urine and by roaring – other animals can hear a lion’s deep, resonant roar from miles away! African lions ferociously defend their territory from other lions, usually with the males of the pride fighting any other male that transgresses into the pride’s territory. 

Diet and hunting

Lions are carnivores – they eat meat. Wildlife biologists call them obligate carnivores. That means that their bodies cannot make some of the nutrients they need to survive, and they must get those nutrients by eating other animals. In the wild, lions hunt a wide variety of prey animals, but mainly large mammals. Among their favorites are antelope, wildebeest, zebra, and sometimes juvenile elephants, giraffes, rhinos, or hippos. When they cannot catch or scavenge large prey, though, lions will also eat birds, reptiles, or marine animals – really, whatever is available. In agricultural areas near villages, lions will feed on domestic livestock. Lions in zoos, such as the Reid Park Zoo, are fed a balanced diet that includes ground meat with added vitamins, beef bones, and sometimes thawed carcasses of smaller mammals. 

Lions hunt in groups with other members of their pride. Most of the hunting is done by the pride’s females. Lions are not the fastest runners and they don’t have stamina to run long distances, so instead they use stealth, teamwork, and strength. Binocular vision from their forward-facing eyes makes them very good at judging distances. They use cover from grass and brush to sneak up close to their prey, often at dusk when it is harder to be seen, and then they launch their attach with a short burst of speed, and use their strength to pull down and kill their prey. 

When lions are not hunting, they spend a lot of time resting and sleeping. A lion will usually spend 18-20 hours of each day napping. Lions have no natural predators, so they can safely sleep on the ground, in the open. 

Reproduction & development.

 Following a gestation of about 3½ months, a pregnant female lion gives birth to a litter of 2-3 cubs. A newborn lion cub is tiny – about 2 pounds, has spotted fur, and often still has its eyes closed. Newborn cubs are almost helpless, so the mother keeps her cubs hidden from predators and separate from the rest of the pride for the first 6-8 weeks of life, rejoining the pride after that. The females in a pride usually give birth around the same time, and they then raise their growing cubs communally, with all the mothers sharing responsibility for care and protection of all the vulnerable young ones.

Lion cubs playfully stalking and pouncing on each other and on adults is one of the cutest behaviors in the animal kingdom! They’re clearly having fun, but they are also practicing crucial hunting skills.Young lions begin to participate in hunts when they are about 2 years old. Female lions begin to bear young at around 3-4 years old, and males begin to father cubs at around 5 years old. 

Lifespan

In the wild, male lions typically live to about 12 years, and females to about 16 years. Lions in zoos, with human care, typically live much longer, up to about 30 years. 

Conservation status

Paleontologists have determined that about ten thousand years ago, lions lived in most of Africa, southern Asia, southeastern Europe, and much of North and South America. Lions today are found in a much narrower range, though, and the number of African lions has dropped dramatically: 10-fold in the past 100 years, and about 3-fold in the last 20 years alone! There are now only about 20,000 African lions left in the wild, and they need help from us in order for the species to survive. 

What can you do to help protect and conserve African lions in the wild? The major threats to lions in the wild are loss of habitat due to either climate change or human development, and hunting for the wildlife trade. Visiting a zoo accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums is one fun way to help – AZA zoos, such as the Reid Park Zoo, use part of their proceeds from ticket sales and membership fees to support researchers and conservation programs in Africa that work to preserve this amazing animal species.  

(And don’t forget to visit their cousins, a pair of beautiful and critically endangered tigers, when the Reid Park Zoo expansion is complete. You’ll be helping to save them as well.)