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Tiger Cubs Born In SD Could Help Save The Species

Clarification: the Sumatran tiger cubs will be on view at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park in January, 2011.

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Video published December 10, 2010 | Download MP4 | View transcript

Above: Go inside the den of twin Sumatran tiger cubs born in San Diego. KPBS Reporter Peggy Pico has the story on the cubs role in reversing a nearly extinct species.


The San Diego Wild Animal Park has recently rechristened itself the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. To go with the new name are two new residents of the park Sumatran tiger cubs.

Those baby tigers are actually part of a very serious effort to save the species from extinction. It's an effort Zoo curators are working to continue and expand.

The San Diego Wild Animal Park has recently rechristened itself the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. To go with the new name are two new residents of the park Sumatran tiger cubs.

Those baby tigers are actually part of a very serious effort to save the species from extinction. It's an effort Zoo curators are working to continue and expand.


Peggy Pico, KPBS Science and Technology Reporter

Randy Rieches, Mammals Curator, San Diego Zoo Safari Park

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

ALISON ST. JOHN: And you're back on These Days, I'm Alison St. John for Maureen Cavanaugh. Interesting music. It sounded a little bit like Sumatran bells there, which is appropriate, because the San Diego wild animal park has rechristened itself as the San Diego zoo safari mark, and to go with the new name, they're got two Sumatran tiger cubs. These baby tiger are actually part of a very serious effort to save the species, apart from being very cute, but this is something that the zoo curators are working to continue and expand. And here in the studio it tell us more about them are Peggy Pico, KPBS science and technology reporter. Peggy, thanks so much for being here.

PEGGY PICO: Good morning.

ALISON ST. JOHN: And Randy -- Rieches?


ALISON ST. JOHN: The mammal curator of the San Diego zoo safari park. Thank you for being here, Randy.

RANDY RIECHES: Good morning.

ALISON ST. JOHN: Peggy, you had a preview, I guess they're not actually open to the public right now. But you had a chance to see them last week.

PEGGY PICO: It was really quite an amazing experience of I'd say it was on my bucket list, and I didn't even know it was. Those two cubs, Joanne and Majel, 15 and 16 pounds. Very distinct personalities, one was very curious, would sneak up to the camera, then get close to the camera, then hiss at the camera then back off. And constantly climbing us and smelling us. The other one, Majel was shy and hiding behind -- underneath a bench and would eventually come out and crawl on us. And one interesting thing, Allison is I was trying to sit there, and you know, we were doing video for it. And they were still tigers, these are not kitten cubs. One had snuck up on me so quiet he and so gently that I didn't know she was on me. Now, this is a 15-pound cub with paws the size of a large dog. So they're not tiny cubs even though they were eight weeks old. And she's all the way up with two paws on my back with her face right near me. And it wasn't until I actually saw her face on my shoulder that I realized there was a tiger cub on my back. So she's already got the -- the hunting kind of thing down. So it was amazing, I was like, yeah, they're not regular kittens, but they're certainly just full of personality, and it was just wonderful to be with them.

ALISON ST. JOHN: So right now they're a little bit like kittens, but perhaps a little bit more -- the size of a predatory creature. But you could play with them.

PEGGY PICO: Oh, absolutely. Playful, they wanted to play, and like a lot of just young little animals and baby animals, they would play and chase and crawl, and then fall asleep. Like okay, we're gonna go to sleep now. And the interesting thing is they didn't purr. I didn't realize that tigers don't purr like kittens. I was waiting -- you know, I'm kinda scratching them and waiting for them to purr, and they didn't purr. They just went to sleep.

ALISON ST. JOHN: So Randy, it wasn't just Peggy. They don't purr, huh?

RANDY RIECHES: That is correct. But what Peggy saw is they are developing hunting skills. And even though they're playing right now, those skills, those play skills will serve them later on in life.

ALISON ST. JOHN: Now, do you have full-grown adults, Sumatran tigers at the safari park?

RANDY RIECHES: We have a number of animal that we have at the San Diego Zoo Safari park right now in our breeding program, and other animals that we have for future breeding programs.

ALISON ST. JOHN: So were these cubs conceived with the animals that you have at the park?

RANDY RIECHES: That is correct. And in fact, the male that sired these cubs is the oldest known male to sire cubs in a captive environment.

ALISON ST. JOHN: Is that something that you were a little afraid at first it might not happen because of that? Or --

RANDY RIECHES: It was very difficult to actually ascertain whether or not he was gonna be a viable male or not. But we really wanted to get his genes represented. And that's why we took it upon ourselves to try and put these two together. Very important blood line to actually get represented.

ALISON ST. JOHN: What is so important about their blood line?

RANDY RIECHES: Well, the one thing is, when you have such a small number of animals in a captive environment, you want to make sure that all the animals are represented. This particular male has only had a couple litter of cubs in his lifetime, whereas we would want to have him have a couple litters at our facility, and then send him on to another facility. And so we want to make sure that each female has a chance to have this male's genes represented.

ALISON ST. JOHN: Okay. So this particular male is doing the rounds, as it were, is he?



PEGGY PICO: He's a happy tiger.

RANDY RIECHES: All the animals that we have in a managed environment, we want to make sure that they're all represented of so we do move animals around.


RANDY RIECHES: But as I stated the other day, it's a very interesting balance. Because it's not only the genetics that you look at, it's the behavior. And as we saw with these two cubs, they both have different behaviors. So you have to try and pair the one that's a little bit more shy, and you have to try and match those behaviors. Because if you put a very shy cub with an over bearing male, it's a little bit more problematic.

PEGGY PICO: And Randy and I were talking about this, I said so this is sort of -- they do this genetic mapping with tigers all over the world. This zoo kind of thing genetically, and I said, well, is it just like that? Like hey, let's meet for tiger meat or something. And they're meeting, and he said, no that their personals, they actually have to match their personalities of and it's like humans of you can't just look good on paper.

RANDY RIECHES: Very much so, because you can have an aggressive altercation.

ALISON ST. JOHN: Ah, ha. We don't want that.

RANDY RIECHES: And certainly with an aggressive altercation with a large tiger, it could be very diagramming.

ALISON ST. JOHN: So how many zoos around the globe that are actually participating in this program?

RANDY RIECHES: We actually have a large number, if you look at the total number of tigers of all five subspecies, we have about -- in the wild, you have almost 3700 to 4000 animals.

ALISON ST. JOHN: That is all there are left huh?

RANDY RIECHES: That is all there are in a wild environment. What we have now in a captive environment now in zoos all over the world, we have just over 1,600 of the five subspecies. So almost half. But there are some of these subspecies that have a very small number. Account in, only 50 in some of them, as we have in the Sumatrans, we have 400. So 400 worldwide that we can choose from all in this genetic database to pull from.

ALISON ST. JOHN: So Peggy, you've been researching the drop in the population of these Sumatran tigers around the globe. Has it been particularly steep in the last few years or what.

PEGGY PICO: 92 it has been, it's been catastrophic of course the numbers I keep seeing from several different sources is they plunged from about 95 to 98 percent at the last century. So it dropped from about 100,000 at the turn of the century, 1900, to -- some reports say as little as 3,200. Some say up to 3,700 but in that range. And the thing that piqued my interest in this story is that, for one thing, I love tigers but for another thing, this, you -- you know, a few thousand tigers, that means that these tigers could literally go extinct in our lifetime. We could say wow, you're never gonna say a tiger in the wild ever again.

ALISON ST. JOHN: Sumatran tigers.

PEGGY PICO: No, all tigers.

ALISON ST. JOHN: Oh, all tigers. Oh, my.

PEGGY PICO: This is all species. Less than 4000, all species.

ALISON ST. JOHN: That's shocking.

PEGGY PICO: All countries, 13 nations, and that's it. And that's why I thought it was really important to talk about it.

ALISON ST. JOHN: So are Sumatran tigers just a small subset of the tigers that are --

RANDY RIECHES: That is correct. All species of tiger are critically endangered. For a number of reasons, loss of habitat, illegal logging, and certainly the poaching. One of the biggest problems is that there are countries that paycheck check that economically have much more money to spend on tiger parts that will go into medicinal trade and skins. And so in the last ten years alone, we've lost over a thousand to 1200 tigers worldwide in the environment. And you cannot sustain that type of blood off of an already problematic population.

ALISON ST. JOHN: We have a caller on the line who's got a question for you. So Renee from El Cajon, thanks so much for calling. Go right ahead.

NEW SPEAKER: Hi. Thanks enforce taking my call. Yeah, I have a question, I often hear when there are new babies born that they're going to help save the species. So I'm curious as to what, if any, programs with other countries that the zoo might be working with? That is, other countries where the tigers are native to. 'Cause as you know, for those reasons you just stated, that tigers can't survive without habitat. And so ultimately, it's the habitat that we have to help preserve and stop poaching and what not.

ALISON ST. JOHN: Thanks for that call, Renee. Of that's a very good point. So rather than breeding them in captivity, are you doing anything with prisoning the habitat?

RANDY RIECHES: Well, we're doing both. Because the population in a captive environment is a safety net for the wild population. If we cannot stop poaching, it would be futile to do a reintroduction of captive cats. However, what we do is -- what we try and do is create partnerships with different organizations worldwide. International rhino foundation, international elephant foundation are two foundations that the San Diego zoo global works with. The international rhino foundation protects habitat. We fund rhino protection units that actually go out into the forest and protect habitat.

ALISON ST. JOHN: By providing --

RANDY RIECHES: By stopping poaching.


RANDY RIECHES: They remove snares, they go out into habitat, talk to indigenous peoples and talk to them about the plight of the tiger so that they do not -- if they have a goat or a cow killed by a tiger, they do not go out and try and kill that tiger. What they will do is they will pay that farmer for the loss of that animal.


RANDY RIECHES: And that keeps them from going out and killing wild tigers.

ALISON ST. JOHN: I guess that is the question, you can be breeding these tigers in captivity. But can they survive if you let them out into the wild? Or is there somewhere to let them go?

RANDY RIECHES: If you actually train them to hunt prey, and this has already been proving that we could actually do that. What you would have to do is insure that these animals would not be poached. Now, there are inherent problems with a release, especially by a large predator, the one thing is they get fed by humans every day. Soap that's somewhat problematic. You're drawing them towards humans because they know that they get food from humans so that is one area that is somewhat problematic.

ALISON ST. JOHN: So Peggy, this is not just something that's happening here in San Diego. We've heard that Vladimir Putin is actually on board with that campaign right.

PEGGY PICO: Correct. He's really made a platform on this. There's video all over the web where he did this very dramatic -- went out and tranquilized a Siberian tiger and tagged it and it making a push to double the Siberian tiger population by 2022.

ALISON ST. JOHN: Is that in the wild?

PEGGY PICO: Yes, in the wild. All things in the wild. And Siberian tiger actually has been one of the few tigers that have actually increased slightly in population over the past few years. And Vladimir wants to keep running on this. Along with the global tiger recovery program. Now, that's a consortium of 13 nations who are trying to come together, different nations, and same thing. Protect the habitat, stop the poaching, try to figure out a way to do that. Of very expensive, it's estimated $350 million just for the first five years of this 12-year program. You are fighting habitat, you are fighting poachers, and world wildlife fund had a video that I saw on line, and basically they had set up a camera to try to look for tiger cubs in the wild. And I won't say where this is, and so they were waiting, and it was, like, three weeks. Well, it just so happened that a bulldozer came by in front of the camera, and you could see and had bulldozed this clear cut this forest. And that's all you see at first. And then about two days later, you see in the clear cutting, in the dirt, these tiger cups come up and smell the camera. So it was very clear that they were clear cutting what was supposed to be a conservation for the tiger. And it just happened to be caught on tape. Of and so the battle is huge.

ALISON ST. JOHN: So Randy, do you get the feeling that the battle is actually a harder battle to preserve the environment for the tiger than it is even to preserve the tiger in the wild here? I mean in the zoo here?

RANDY RIECHES: Well, it's -- both are very, very difficult. Because there are so many different aspects. And there are so many end users. Obviously there is a huge demand for hard woods out of these forests. Certainly there are indigenous people that are running their cattle, their sheep, their goats, their cows, in protected forests. So they're competing, you know, they're competing for habitat. That coupled with the fact that there are so many of these incredible animals that are poached every year, because it's so lucrative for poachers. I mean, they can literally live for a year on a couple poached cats. So the person that is actually doing the poaching is making a substantial amount of money. So you have to combat that. And that's what one of the things we also do with our antipoaching team is we look for poachers that actually want to make a change in their life. And we actually convert them and turn a poacher into a forest ranger. And because who else knows, you know, where the animals are and what the issues are?


RANDY RIECHES: So that's a very good way of us doing.

PEGGY PICO: Yeah, and the turn around is -- I did want to mention this, because I've been talking to a lot of people about this story. And somebody actually said to me, I was surprised, said, well, tigers make good pets correct? As if you could save the tigers by getting some illegal cubs and bring -- absolutely not. I just wanted to say that. Absolutely not. They do not make good pets. And that is not the way to save the species by having a tiger in your backyard. We saw what happened in LA recently when somebody's pet tiger got loose, it was headed toward a school, and it was shot. It wasn't tranquilized, it was shot, and that was somebody's pull grown pet tiger. And they make -- I just wanted to make that really clear. They don't make good pets. They're wild animals. They should be wild.

ALISON ST. JOHN: So if somebody wants to see a tiger, the best place to go here in San Diego is -- is not somebody else's backyard. But the safari park right?

RANDY RIECHES: Absolutely.

ALISON ST. JOHN: When will they be on view?

RANDY RIECHES: Well the Sumatran tigers are on view every day. What we're doing right now is we're fundraising for this new enclosure at the San Diego zoo safari parks which will open in 2013. The new enclosure will -- we will go from a single species habitat to a multiple species habitat where you will see many, many different birds, reptiles, and tigers. And the tigers will be in three large -- three different large enclosures that our guests will walk through, so you will actually be immersed in their habitat. You will feel like you're in their environment.

ALISON ST. JOHN: So they're not actually on show right now, right?

RANDY RIECHES: No, the Sumatran tigers you can see every day.


RANDY RIECHES: And you can also see a Bengal tiger. But the ones we're really working with right now are the Sumatran tigers because the population has dwindled to 300 animals in the wild.

ALISON ST. JOHN: 300. My goodness. So what you're doing right now is trying to get the habitat in the zoo to be ready.

RANDY RIECHES: Absolutely. And the biggest problem with that population in the wild is that you've lost so many genes. And you've lost so much genetic diversity.

ALISON ST. JOHN: Good, well, I'm, afraid we've come to the end of our time. If you want to see a video of the cubs on our website, you can go to back/These Days. And I'd like to thank Randy Rieches, the mammals curator at the Zoo's Safari park. Thank you so much for coming in, Randy.


ALISON ST. JOHN: And of course Peggy Pico for bringing them to life for us.

PEGGY PICO: Great to be here.

ALISON ST. JOHN: Thank you Peggy. I'm Alison St. John in for Maureen Cavanaugh. Thanks for listening.

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