The world caught a glimpse of Sumatran tiger cubs – the rarest tiger on earth – whose birth at the London Zoo was captured on hidden camera. Their every move was recorded. Melati, a five-year-old tigress, gave birth to three cubs on Feb. 3. The photos were just released.
Tigers breed during the winter season and usually give birth to three to four cubs after a gestation period of 101 to 105 days. Melati gave birth after 106, without complication. As is customary for tigers, Melati had a birthing den, although it was not of her own making. In the wild, tigers usually use dense grass, a crevice, or a cave – sometimes the hollow of a tree.
However, the father tiger is absent during the birth and rearing of young, who are totally dependent on their mother because they are blind at birth until between day six and 12. When born, they weigh between a pound and a half and three and a half pounds. Tiger cubs have high mortality rates – only about half of those born reach maturity.
The Sumatran tiger (Panthera tigris sumatrae) is named for the island on Indonesia from where they originate. They are the smallest of all tigers: the male only grows to 220-375 lbs. and is less than 8 feet long. His tail, which is about half the length of his body, is used for balance while running at fast speeds and for communication. Sumatra tigers have large eyes, which are good for judging distances while running and pouncing. They have yellow irises and are able to see in color. Sumatra tigers are mostly nocturnal, so their night-time vision is quite good.
Due to poaching (illegal trading of tiger parts for high price – used principally for Asian medicine) and habitat destruction (timber resources being exploited), there are only about 350 Sumatran tigers left in the wild. This is down from 1,000 in the 1980s, making these tigers a critically endangered subspecies. Their natural habitat is the moist tropical jungle, which has significantly receded in size since they first existed over one million years ago. In the wild, their population is fragmented and they most commonly frequent national parks on the island of Sumatra.
The rarity is twofold: both the birth of the triplet tiger cubs and the fact that it was recorded on camera. London is one of a number of zoos globally that houses the Sumatra tigers. Others – which house approximately 361 captive tigers – include zoos in Indonesia, Australaia, across Europe, and throughout North America, including the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., the Philadelphia Zoo, and the Safari Park zoo in San Diego (see video below).
In the wild, the Sumatra tiger lives isolated from other subspecies of tigers that live on mainland Asia; this is due to the rise in sea level 10,000 years ago. Because of their endangered nature, a Sumatran Tiger Trust has been established to ensure its preservation. One hundred years ago, there were three subspecies of tigers in Indonesia. The Sumatra is the only one which remains. Prior to 1900 the Sumatra tiger’s natural habitat was covered in forests and the tiger roamed throughout the island.
The zookeepers at the London Zoo were overjoyed by the birth of the Sumatra tiger cubs, as six months ago one of the rare cubs drowned in their tiger pool at age two weeks. Consequently, they captured the recent birth on camera and have since been vigilantly watching them 24/7. While the gender of the tigers is still undetermined, the zookeepers have named them based on the personalities they have exhibited. In each litter, one tiger is usually the dominant one. In the case of the London Sumatra tigers, one is named “Trouble.” The zookeepers hope that its curious nature will be kept in check to the extent that it will be safe in the protective environment.
By Fern Remedi-Brown