11 year-old male seeks younger female companion who wants to start a family. He likes cardboard boxes, bamboo, bloodsicles, and might enjoy long walks on the beach (although he has never tried that particular activity). Interested?
In zoos, Sumatran tigers are paired with one another and bred according to the recommendations of the Sumatran tiger Species Survival Plan (SSP), a committee that uses a studbook to compile the genetics and lineages for the species. It is essentially a compilation of “dating profiles” for tigers in human care in the US: the age of each individual, parentage, living history and preferences, and medical history. The SSP coordinator compares these profiles and plays matchmaker, recommending breeding pairs based on genetic diversity. Based on these breeding recommendations, AZA zoos send tigers on “blind dates.” As a tiger keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, I chaperone these pairings with my fingers crossed that the nerve-racking “first date” leads to tiger cubs and a “happily ever after.” Just like online dating!
Based on the SSP, Langka, an adult male recently came to the Safari Park from the Kansas City Zoo. Born on September 13, 2004, he weighs approximately 278 pounds (126 kilograms) and is missing both canine teeth on the right side of his mouth. At the Kansas City Zoo, Langka was housed with his brother, and since boys will be boys, Langka sports a few wrestling scars along his flanks. His facial ruff is reminiscent of an old-timey gentleman’s well-groomed mutton chops and his tail looks like it has been dipped in ink. This handsome fellow arrived at the Safari Park on April 13, 2016. After the standard 30-day quarantine process, his address changed to Tiger Trail.
As the “new kid on the block”, Langka was shy and nervous at first. Now that he is settling in, we are beginning to hear chuffs, whines, and yowls from him—he’s a chatterbox! We keepers are beginning to gauge his enrichment preferences so that we can set up his bedrooms in the most fun and comfortable ways possible. After all, the “bachelor pad” has to be perfect! So far, Langka loves cardboard boxes, bamboo, bloodsicles, and Calvin Klein “Obsession for Men” cologne. We are also beginning to train him using the same operant conditioning techniques that we use throughout the Safari Park. Thanks to the Kansas City Zoo keepers, Langka already knows many behaviors and is catching on quickly.
Langka’s intended lady is six-year old Majel, who was born at the Safari Park on October 5, 2010, along with her sister Joanne. Joanne is the dedicated mother of four cubs, but Majel has yet to breed. Majel enthusiastically greets Joanne’s mate, Teddy, whenever she sees him through mesh on exhibit or in the house, so hopefully she will enjoy having a “boyfriend” of her own!
At this time, we are taking things slowly. Langka and Majel are able to see and smell each other in the tiger house. They are able to greet each other through a mesh door with a buffer room between them. Think of it as the tiger version of Skype. They are also getting the opportunity to check out each other’s rooms each morning before we clean, during which we are observing both cats regularly performing territorial and pre-breeding behaviors, like scent marking and Flehmen responses—good signs! We are also tracking Majel’s estrus cycles. Female tigers cycle in much the same way as human females: they have an estrus phase each month instead of a breeding season like deer. The keepers track Majel’s estrus cycles by observing her behaviors and our reproductive biologists track her cycles by monitoring hormone levels in weekly fecal samples. When the hormone levels peak, Majel is in estrus.
In a few months, we will give them access to each other during one of Majel’s estrus cycles. Since tigers are solitary animals, it is crucial to only pair a male and female when the female is in estrus. Otherwise, the female won’t be receptive to the male’s attentions and their interactions will become aggressive. We don’t want their first date to be a dud!
Hopefully Langka and Majel will be a successful breeding pair. SSP breeding recommendations are important for all six sub-species of tiger, but they are especially important for Sumatran tigers. Sumatran tigers are a critically endangered sub-species. Due to habitat loss, there are fewer than 350 of these cats left in the wild, so every birth we have at the Park is vitally important. Keep your fingers crossed for this older gentleman and lovely young lady!
Elise Newman is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read her previous blog, The Newest “Stripe” in the “Streak.”