Friday, December 15, 2017

Big attractions, shrinking populations

 The Emperor Valley Zoo is devoting much effort towards diversifying its animal collection. From the lion pride, comprising Mufasa, Scar and Kovu, to popular giraffes Mandela and Melman, there is now a foreign array of resident animal species calling Trinidad home. 

Upon completion, the Asia and Africa exhibits will house the zoo’s most recent arrivals: three Bengal tigers and two African lionesses. At face value, being able to visit these Emperor Valley residents sounds exciting. Yet analysing what lies beneath is a little more troubling. 

How do we know if these newest arrivals are medically fit and gene­tically sound? Also, will this venture aid in preserving the critically endangered Panthera leo (lions) and Panthera tigris (tigers) populations? 

Various subspecies of lions and tigers once freely roamed African and Asian landscapes. However, poaching, trophy hunting, retaliatory killings and habitat loss drastically reduced their numbers. Panthera—an NGO (non-governmental organisation) dealing with conservation of big cat species—estimates African lions, in particular, have vanished from 80 per cent of their habitats and are now extinct in 26 countries. 

A similar, worrying destiny threatens the Bengal tiger in the Indian subcontinent’s eastern region. Though the most numerous of the remaining seven tiger subspecies, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) labels Bengal tigers as “endangered” since only 2,500 exist in the wild today. 

Attempting to bolster species regeneration, the WWF is working towards secu­ring extensive areas of protected land. Such efforts aimed towards safeguarding natural habitats for big cats should be commended. We in T&T, however, must be careful not to equate conservation efforts with cramped exhibitions. 

White lions, unfortunately, also risk extinction. They are unprotected by law. The Global White Lion Protection Trust emphasises they exist today only in capti­vity; they have been plucked out of the wild and are now mostly bred for, and reside in, zoos. 

The white Bengal tiger experiences a similar fate. National Geographic asserts the last white Bengal tiger in the wild was shot, and for years, zoos and circuses have been responsible for their breeding. Another chapter in transforming wild animals to captive animals is the inclusion of white lions and tigers at our zoo. 

Contrary to popular belief, white Bengal tigers are neither albinos nor a distinct tiger subspecies. They are the products of an extremely rare recessive gene found in a few Bengal tigers that produce white-coated offspring. Researchers claim breeders and zookeepers capitalise on this novelty by inbreeding these genetically mutated white tigers to satisfy public fas­cination with animal curiosities. This taste stretches back to the Roman Empire since pha­raohs exchanged gifts of exotic creatures and used some as animal gladiators. 

That these large animals are kept in small enclosures is as worrying as the genetic abnormalities plaguing inbred offspring. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) outlines various deformities associated with selective breeding practices, including strabismus, cleft palates and anomalies around the trachea —conditions affecting an animal’s depth perception and ability to swallow food. 

While AZA acknowledges documentation of such abnormalities in white lions and white Bengal tigers, Emperor Valley has declared intentions to establish a breeding programme here. Such paths must be tread carefully, especially if intentional breeding to achieve rare traits is applied, as this contradicts AZA policy on animal presentation. 

Furthermore, if these cats are incorporated into a local breeding programme, can we hope their offspring could be rehabilitated into reserves such as those in Nepal and Bangladesh, in an effort to rebuild depleted populations?

The impact of “visitor effect” upon these cats also necessitates consideration. While studies in this area are still in their infancy—the majority having been conducted with primates—researchers found animals are less stressed when in control of the interaction between themselves and their audience. 

Many may see it a privilege to have these exotic, rare cats inhabiting our national zoo. Yet their welfare—and that of the remaining members of their species —must be the top priority. Given that ours is a city zoo and consequently limited in space, it is suggested we focus upon meeting the needs of animals native to our region. Zoos market themselves as educational avenues, but a more appropriate method of education might be hosting school seminars, instead of displaying animals as living trophies. 

Wouldn’t it be better to see lions and tigers freely roam their African and Asian landscapes rather than as kings of our local Africa and Asia zoo exhibits?

Karima Pragg 

PhD candidate at UWI, St Augustine, and an avid animal lover

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