St. Louis Post-Dispatch
By Jeffrey Bonner
November 2, 2008

In the 11th report of a monthly series this year, Saint Louis Zoo President Jeffrey Bonner explores a part of the globe where the Zoo is working to conserve threatened species, protect natural habitat and partner with other organizations to strengthen the web of life in which we all live.

Tiger TV

Whenever I can, I've been sneaking up to Big Cat Country to see our five new Siberian tiger cubs and their mom. I've been a zoo president for well over 16 years now, and I don't get enthralled easily. But I just can't help myself.

Here at the Zoo we call it "Tiger TV." Watching them is easily as addictive as one of those silly reality shows, and every "episode" leaves me wanting to see more the next day.

I often find myself commenting to visitors that their mom, Kalista, must have the patience of a saint. The cubs stalk her, bite her, pounce on her and commit mayhem and mischief in roughly equal measure. They fall down in the moat and then discover that it makes a perfect race track. Just watching them leaves me exhausted, and I don't have to take care of them all day every day like their mom does.

But nobody ever talks about dad, and that's not too surprising. In the wild (and here at the zoo), tiger dads have absolutely nothing to do with rearing the young. In fact, the dad, a handsome older tiger named Khuntami, did everything he was supposed to do about 3 1/2 months before the tigers were born. He impregnated Kalista. That's it. Job over.

So let me tell you Dad's story.

Largest Tigers

We do not know for sure how many Siberian tigers remain in the wild, but we estimate that the number is between 400 and 500. Siberian tigers are now called Amur tigers. They have been renamed for the Amur River, which runs through Siberia for 2,700 miles. They once inhabited the snowy Russian forests from north of Mongolia, past North Korea, all the way to the Sea of Japan.

Amur tigers are the largest of all the big cats and arguably the most beautiful. They look much like Bengal tigers, but they are taller and have more whitish coloring on their heads and underbelly. They are huge, sometimes weighing more than 600 pounds. When Khuntami stands on his hind legs against his enclosure, his head is higher than I can reach with my hand over my head. They are masterful hunters, known for their grace, cunning and power.

In spring 1993, Khuntami came to the United States from Siberia. He came here with his sister, a gorgeous tigress named Nadirzda, when they were both only a few months old. Khuntami and Nadirzda had lived with their mother, Lena, in the Sikhote-Alin International Biosphere Reserve in far eastern Siberia. This reserve is home to a large concentration of the remaining Amur tigers - probably about 200.

Two American researchers, Howard Quigley and Maurice Hornocker, had teamed up with Russian biologists to study the tigers in the 840,000-acre preserve, combining their skills in tranquilizing tigers and fitting them with radio telemetry collars with the Russians' skills in tracking tigers in the wild. In June 1992, the research team tracked and tranquilized Lena, then fitted her with a radio collar. For five months, they tracked her movements through the forest until, suddenly, the collar stopped moving entirely. Researchers rushed to the spot, only to discover that Lena had fallen victim to poachers. The collar had been slashed off her carcass and left in the snow.

Orphan Baby Tigers

What the poachers didn't know was that Lena had cubs. Four 10-week-old babies were hidden nearby. Two of them, already weak from lack of food, had died. The other two, Khuntami and his sister, were picked up by the scientists, who locked them in their small cabin outside the town of Terney. These two cubs were too young to survive in the wild, so the researchers began a series of frantic phone calls to American zoos, searching for an institution that could take the cubs. They also made a series of phone calls to Russian officials in an effort to line up the necessary permits required to get them into the United States.

Clear-cutting of timber and poaching are the tiger's greatest enemies. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, government officials turned to the logging industry in an effort to generate hard currency. Enormous expanses of the taiga - the spruce, fir, and pine forests that make up the Siberian forest - were leased to foreign corporations. The corporations clear-cut the land, destroying the tiger's habitat. In 1992 about 10 million acres a year were being cleared. The corporations also built roads to get the logs out, and these roads became the poachers' best friend.

The roads allow for easy access from China and North Korea into the tigers' range and give the poachers access to those lucrative markets. They sell every part of the tiger, including the skin, organs and bones, for medical cures. The genitals are thought to have great aphrodisiac value. The bones are crushed and used to make "tiger wine." The total value of a poached tiger was, at that time, about $10,000, roughly equal to one year's wages for someone living the area.

While the cubs were temporarily safe, locked in the cabin in the town outside the preserve, raising the babies wasn't easy. Eventually the scientists found a supplier who had whole sides of beef for sale. These were cut up and injected with vitamins and minerals. Fortunately, the project had a veterinarian on the team, and she proved to be up to the task of caring for the precious infants.

By mid-January of the following year, the permits were in place, and the cubs were flown to the United States. Both Khuntami and his sister went initially to the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha, Neb., and then Nadirzda was flown to a new home at the Indianapolis Zoo.

Hostility Proves Fortunate

Back then, I was the president of the Indianapolis Zoo, so I knew Nadirzda pretty well. I loved her from the moment I saw her. She, on the other hand, was not fond of me. She wasn't particularly fond of anybody, even as a cub, but she reserved her most emphatic dislike for me. It turned out to be a good thing because her adult canines were growing in before her baby teeth had completely run out. This meant that the vets had to examine her mouth regularly.

My first job at the zoo was to walk in and stand in front of her. As soon as she saw me, she'd open her mouth and hiss. She wouldn't take her eyes off me. The vets could actually stick their fingers in her mouth and examine her teeth. She paid them no mind at all. As long as I was in the room, they were completely safe. I was the only one she wanted to focus on.

When Kalista, our tiger mom in St. Louis, rejected all of her previous suitors, the AZA Tiger Species Survival Plan recommended that the Henry Doorly Zoo send Khuntami to us. I figured he'd dislike me as much as his sister did. But Khuntami didn't hold any particular animosity toward me. He didn't much like anybody, but at least he didn't dislike me in particular.

The important thing, though, was that Kalista really liked him. Shortly after she cycled, we knew that she was pregnant and going to be a first-time mother. Of course, we didn't know she was going to be a first-time mother of five!

Most zoo animals do not come from the wild. Khuntami was the exception, not the rule. The reason he was brought to the U.S. was that he never would have survived on his own.

Goodbye to Khuntami

Tigers, like many species here at the zoo, are in Species Survival Plans. These are population management programs that are designed to maximize genetic diversity for 100 years. Because Khuntami came from the wild, we can assume that his genes likely weren't represented in our North American population. This makes him (and now his five babies) very important animals from a genetic point of view.

Khuntami is leaving us now. He's going back to the Henry Doorly Zoo, the place he has called home since his rescue from the wild of Siberia. Our visitors won't necessarily miss him. As big and as beautiful as he is, he can't compete for a prime-time slot with five adorable baby tigers. I'll miss him, though, if only because he fathered five adorable baby tigers in his brief time here.

If scarcity relates directly to value, then our five babies are among the most treasured gems in the animal kingdom. Every Amur tiger born is priceless. Sadly, tigers in Siberia continue to fall to poachers' guns, and the future of all tigers in the wild is bleak. But we are doing all we can to ensure that they have a future. The proof can be seen here at the zoo between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. every day. Plan on spending plenty of time if you come to visit. When it comes to Tiger TV, it's darn hard to change the channel.

Republished with the permission of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Copyright 2008 St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Courtesy of STLtoday.com