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Tiger Cubs Born In SD Offer Hope To Nearly Extinct Wild Tigers

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Aired 12/10/10

There are only about 3,200 tigers left in the world living in the wild, but two tiger cubs born in San Diego are doing their part to save the species from extinction.

— There are only about 3,200 tigers left in the world living in the wild, but two tiger cubs born in San Diego are doing their part to save the species from extinction.

Joanne, is a curious blue-eyed 8-week-old Sumatran tiger cub. The 16-pound furry orange and brown striped cub hisses as she bravely creeps toward me.

Her shy twin sister Majel watches cautiously from a distance inside their den at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park- formerly called the Wild Animal Park.

While we’re inside their hidden den, Delta, the cub’s 250-pound mother inspects her outdoor enclosure.

The twins birth is of international interest, because tigers living in the wild are dangerously close to becoming extinct, said Randy Rieches curator of mammals at Safari Park.

“All tiger species could actually go extinct in our lifetime,” said Rieches.

There’s been a rapid and catastrophic decline of all tiger species in the past century. Since 1900, the global tiger population living in the wild has dropped from around 100,000 to about 3,200.

Illegal hunting or poaching, and the impact of deforestation on the tigers food supply, are to blame said Rieches.

“So now they don’t have the forest cover, they don’t have the prey species and it makes it almost impossible for them to exist,” said Rieches.

Global conservation efforts are underway. The latest push is from Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. He committed to doubling the world’s Siberian tiger population by 2022.

It’s a daunting task. The Global Tiger Recovery Program estimates 13 nations will need $350 million just to get the program started.

Safari Park’s animal care supervisor Autumn Nelson hopes the parks genetic breeding program will help wild tigers recover.

“Our program here at the Safari Park is very beneficial to tigers and their conservation," Nelson said. "Breeding this critically endangered animals is helping global efforts."

Joanne and Majel were born to genetically matched parents. Genetic pairing is important because with so few tigers left, the gene pool has drastically shrunk. This can lead to offspring who are at risk of deformities and increased risk of diseases said Rieches.

“The best pair isn’t always a compatible pair so you have to look at their behavior and look at what the genetics are and match those two," said Rieches.

The match paid off with these cubs—which like many newborns offer hope for the future.

In the meantime, Safari Park is expanding its tiger exhibit to accommodate more cubs said Rieches.

“Instead of one exhibit we’ll have 3 large enclosures," Rieches said. "When you come to the new tiger exhibits in the park, you’ll be in an environment where animals are on both sides of you in a very densely foliated habitat—you will be in their environment."

The new exhibits will include ponds—where tigers, unlike most cats will enjoy swimming.

Joanne and Majel are still several weeks away from enjoying the water or even a maiden voyage outside their den.

The cubs will remain in the den until their vaccinations are complete, then they’ll be introduced to the public at Safari Park at the end of January.

You can see exclusive video of Joanne and Majel tonight at 8 p.m. on San Diego Week on KPBS TV.

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