Birth of twin Malayan tigers revives breeding efforts in Singapore

Night Safari's latest Malayan tiger cubs at two months old resting in their den on Feb 26, 2021. PHOTO: WILDLIFE RESERVES SINGAPORE

SINGAPORE - The birth of twin Malayan tigers at the Night Safari last December - the first in over two decades - has revived Singapore's effort to breed the critically endangered subspecies.

The latest additions take the tally of successfully bred Malayan tigers in Wildlife Reserves Singapore's (WRS) parks to 26.

Native to Peninsular Malaysia, the felines died out in Singapore when the last Malayan tiger was shot in 1930 in Choa Chu Kang. About 150 of them are estimated to be in the wild, according to WRS.

Over the last 60 years, the predators are increasingly threatened by poaching for illegal wildlife trade, with their parts sought after in traditional Chinese medicine, as well as habitat loss and fragmentation.

The Strait Times spoke to Mr Anand Kumar, assistant curator for carnivores at WRS, to find out more about the latest breeding success.

While 24 Malayan tiger cubs were successfully born in WRS' parks between 1994 and 1998, the absence of fertile tigers was the main reason behind the dearth of births that followed.

"Since then, there was a lack of suitable breeding pairs with most of the Malayan tigers being above the age of 17, which tends to be when their reproductive systems shut down," said Mr Anand.

Finding the best match

Zoological institutions carefully manage the pairings of critically endangered animals like the Malayan tiger to ensure genetic diversity. This prevents the risk of inbreeding, or mating among relatives, which can lead to health complications.

Mr Anand said: "Low sperm counts, birth defects, being more prone to sickness and shorter life spans are just a few possible consequences."

The animal's family tree and age are a few key factors that zoos consider when matching the tigers.

"As there are not many Malayan tigers under human care, acquiring genetically viable pairs is a difficult task," he added.

As at 2019, there are 48 male and 37 female Malayan tigers under human care in zoological institutions worldwide, recorded by the International Tiger Studbook under the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

Not all of the 85 are of breeding age, which makes it harder to secure the right mate.

After much negotiation, WRS finally sealed a deal in 2015 to receive four young tigers from Malaysia, including the twins' parents, Intan and Bongsu.

One of Night Safari's latest Malayan tiger cubs at 11 weeks old in its den on March 15, 2021. PHOTO: WILDLIFE RESERVES SINGAPORE

"We waited for a few years to introduce them to each other, as they were not sexually mature yet," said Mr Anand.

Positive signs began when Intan and Bongsu had no signs of aggression when introduced to each other in September last year.

Soon, good news arrived when Intan showed signs of pregnancy - gaining weight and having more pronounced mammary glands.

"Intan has been a great mother and under her care the cubs have been growing very well," said Mr Anand. "She pays a lot of attention to the cubs, such as grooming them and letting them suckle."

To support conservation of the critically endangered subspecies, WRS partners the non-profit Malaysian Conservation Alliance for Tigers to engage the community in Citizen Action for Tigers walks in Malaysia's wildlife corridors that monitor the activity of poachers and remove tiger snares.

WRS plans to breed more Malayan tigers.

Since 1994, it has sent 17 Malayan tigers to other zoological institutions in countries such as Germany and Thailand as part of exchange programmes to further genetic diversity of the population under human care. Mr Anand said: "We are very proud to be part of the conservation efforts that may one day see some of these animals being returned to their native habitat once the conditions are right."

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