Behind the scenes at London Zoo’s Tiger Territory, Asim is being trained. “Asim down!” says senior keeper Laura Garrett — and the seven-year-old Sumatran tiger lies on the floor. “Asim up!” makes him stand, “Asim sit!” crouch and “Asim board!” lie on a platform where vets can monitor his health.
The tiger is rewarded with chunks of meat, which he grabs from metal tongs pushed through the wide mesh of his enclosure. Finally Laura crosses her arms, a sign that feeding time is over.
Asim’s behaviour and physiology are studied for clues that could help conservation efforts to save wild Sumatran tigers, fewer than 400 of which survive in Indonesia.
His stay at ZSL London Zoo — showcase of the Zoological Society of London, the FT’s seasonal appeal partner — had a catastrophic start. Asim arrived in January from Denmark through a European breeding exchange programme that aims to increase the genetic diversity of animals threatened with extinction in the wild.
Then, in a sad exception to European zoos’ generally excellent mating of big cats, Asim killed his intended partner Melati in a fight after their introduction in February.
Looking back at the tragedy, Malcolm Fitzpatrick, senior curator of mammals, said: “Every precaution was taken when Asim and Melati were introduced. The animal team saw all the positive signs that indicated the introduction would be successful — cautious greetings, chuffing and sniffing. But nature is unpredictable. There is always an inherent risk with any big cat introduction.”
There are no plans for Asim to meet another tigress in the immediate future, but if and when the time comes for another introduction “Asim does not pose a greater risk to a tigress than any other male tiger,” Mr Fitzpatrick insisted. Tigers fight in the wild too, sometimes with fatal results.
Asim lives in a large enclosure with trees and high feeding poles — tigers enjoy climbing — and toys to play with. “Training forms part of a carefully designed behavioural enrichment programme which stimulates Asim and keeps his mind active,” Mr Fitzpatrick added.
Many people feel uneasy about keeping free-ranging animals in captivity — and organisations such as Freedom for Animals, the Aspinall Foundation and Born Free Foundation are campaigning for the eventual abolition of zoos.
ZSL officials acknowledge such concerns but insist that zoos justify their existence, both by providing a scientific base that underpins conservation work around the world and through their educational role, letting children and adults experience animals that they are unlikely to encounter in the wild.
“An important concept today is the ‘continuum of wildness’,” said Nic Masters, ZSL chief vet. “This is the idea that there is no longer a simple contrast between captive animals and free wild animals. Zoos occupy the most intensive end of that continuum but there is little true wilderness left in the world.”
Mr Masters said modern well-run zoos emphasise the health and welfare of their charges above anything else. Studies have shown that mammals in zoos generally live longer and enjoy better health than their wild counterparts. Indeed zoo vets have succeeded so well that a new field of geriatric veterinary medicine is emerging, to treat disorders of elderly animals such as arthritis.
At the same time research at London Zoo in Regents Park and its sister site ZSL Whipsnade Zoo in Bedfordshire — for example into animals’ genetics, reproductive and feeding behaviour — is underpinning efforts to conserve species that are critically endangered in the wild, such as Chinese giant salamanders and “mountain chicken” frogs on the Caribbean island of Dominica.
However, most species in the 100 or so institutions that belong to the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums (Biaza) are not threatened with extinction. For many zoos the educational function — the opportunity to bring people into contact with animals — may be more important than conservation.
“Never have more people lived in urban environments and felt disconnected from wildlife,” said Kathryn England, London Zoo’s chief operating officer. “We’ve recently had some great television programmes that have increased the depth of public knowledge about nature, but even the best experiences on a flat screen lack the immersion with all your senses that you get when visiting a zoo.”
However Andrew Terry, who joined ZSL in April as conservation director after 11 years as head of field programmes at the Durrell Trust, wants zoos to integrate their work more effectively with worldwide conservation efforts.
“I am a critical friend of zoos,” he said. “We can do more to export the skills of our zookeepers out into the field. For example we want to strengthen the conservation connection between Sumatran tigers in zoos and in the wild.”
Even if Asim does not breed, his behaviour in London Zoo’s Tiger Territory may yet have lessons for those trying to save his remaining wild cousins in Indonesia.
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Photographs by Charlie Bibby for the FT