The Sumatran tiger’s complete extinction is a very real possibility. After all, the animal’s numbers have halved dramatically over the last 40 years. However, the species as a whole was given a boost in June 2016 when ZSL London Zoo welcomed a very special arrival.
The Sumatran tiger, or, to give it its scientific name, panthera tigris sumatrae, is the smallest of the surviving tiger subspecies, with male tigers only weighing between 220 to 310 pounds. The subspecies is further distinguished by its vivid orange coats and thick black stripes.
It favors forests, grasslands and wetlands as its habitat, and it is Indonesia’s last surviving species of tiger. In the wild, then, the cats are found exclusively on the island of Sumatra, though it is estimated that there are only 400 remaining outside of captivity.
The tiger’s low numbers are a result of mass deforestation and illegal poaching. Therefore, in 2008 the tiger was classed as being “critically endangered” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species. This list is designed to determine an animal’s risk of extinction.
However, despite poaching being illegal – punishable by steep fines and jail time – in Indonesia, the practice shows no signs of declining. This is because there is still apparently a huge market for tiger products in Sumatra and the rest of Asia.
And so, with the Sumatran tiger’s future looking uncertain, massive efforts have gone into its conservation. With that in mind, the United Kingdom’s ZSL London Zoo opened its state-of-the art Tiger Territory in March 2013. The $4.8 million facility was designed to encourage breeding of the species.
The enclosure is home to a female named Melati, who came to London from Perth Zoo in Australia. She weighs in at 181 pounds and is described by zoo keepers as an “intelligent and careful cat.”
Melati was joined by male Jae Jae in 2012 as part of the global efforts to breed the critically endangered tigers. Luckily, it was love at first sight, with the 287-pound big cat seemingly falling head over paws for his new roommate.
Little over a year later, in September 2013, the couple welcomed their first cub after a pregnancy of 105 days. This is not bad, as the average length of a tiger pregnancy is 16 weeks, at which point the mother will begin preparing a den to protect her little ones. Incredibly, this particular cub was the first to be born at the zoo for 17 years.
Unfortunately, mortality rates in young tigers – who are born blind – are high, with only half surviving into adulthood. And, sadly, Jae Jae and Melati’s firstborn drowned in the enclosure’s pool at just two weeks old.
Despite the setback, however, Melati soon became pregnant once more and welcomed three healthy cubs – Nakal, Budi and Cinta – into the world in February 2014. Then, after having raised them for nearly two years, the new parents were separated from their babies in early 2016. In fact, the youngsters were sent to start their own breeding groups.
However, the couple was not alone for long. Indeed, it was soon discovered that Melati was expecting again. So, on Monday June 27, 2016, the now experienced mother gave birth to twins following a 108-day pregnancy.
And, fascinatingly, the rare moment was captured on camera. Certainly, after noticing the tigress seemed to be going into labor, zookeepers decided to monitor the birth on their hidden camera system – CubCam.
They watched as the first cub emerged at 9:19 a.m., followed 40 minutes later by the second. Melati gave her new babies a thorough clean before attending to their first feed and safety tucking them away in their den.
Thanks to the CubCam, the zoo was able to capture some of the cubs’ defining first moments and share them with the public. Special events caught on film so far include dad Jae Jae’s first tentative attempts to bond with his babies as well as the cubs discovering their playful sides.
Explaining the benefits of CubCam, Teague Stubbington, London Zoo’s assistant curator of mammals, said, “[It] allows us to observe the youngsters 24/7 while not disturbing mum or dad at all, which is ideal while they get to know their babies.” He added, “We’re overjoyed with our new arrivals, and with how Melati is responding to her two cubs.”
One other important milestone to be caught on camera was the first time that the adorable felines opened their little eyes. This tends to happen when they’re between six and 12 days old, so it was a good indication that these cubs were developing well. Furthermore, it meant the little furballs could begin exploring their environment properly.
Like their brothers and sisters before them, the twins will eventually be moved away in order to start their own families and give Sumatran tiger numbers a much-needed boost. As a result, the twins’ birth has not only been celebrated by the zoo, but also throughout the worldwide conservation community.
Andjar Rafiastanto, who is the Indonesian country manager for the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), said, “This is exciting news for the Sumatran tiger, a flagship species for the ZSL conservation program in Indonesia. ZSL has been in Sumatra for more than 14 years, working with our government counterparts to increase the protection of Sumatran tigers. The birth of these two tiger cubs brings us hope for their long-term survival.”
For now, the twosome are simply enjoying their parents’ love and care in the safety of their den before they’ll be able to be viewed by the public at London Zoo in a few months’ time. Meanwhile, the zoo has promised to keep the cubs’ fans updated with their progress with exclusive CubCam footage online.