Melati, ZSL’s female Sumatran tiger, born in Perth Zoo, Australia, in August 2008

Tiger Territory

26th April 2013

The lord of the Asiatic jungle is in danger of extinction. Can London Zoo’s new Tiger Territory draw more attention to their plight? asks Jack Watkins

I should have guessed what I was in for as I passed by the Big Cats’ enclosures. Under oppressive grey skies, a whopping great Asiatic Lion suddenly stepped out of his shed. He circled in a disconsolate manner for a few seconds and then, after a look of what can only be described as sheer dismay, lifted his head and gave vent to the most terrifying roar I’d ever heard. Then he promptly turned tail and went back inside. I still could hear his baleful groans as I headed off down the path, thinking, ‘I know how you feel, mate.’ On a day so cold it would have frozen the paws off a polar bear, I’d come to see some tigers in their swanky new, custom-built, territory at London Zoo. I’d been at the Regent’s Park headquarters of the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) for barely five minutes, and already I was looking like a bad case of frostbite.

The Tiger Territory is, at 27,000 sq ft, five times the size of the Zoo’s previous tiger enclosure. It’s been designed to ensure that it suits all of the big cats’ needs. Visitors, explains the press office’s blurb, ‘will embark on a journey through an Indonesian habitat, coming face-to-face with beautiful tigers through the floor-to-ceiling glass windows.’ The trouble was that on the day of my visit the climate was about as far removed from that of a tropical jungle as it’s possible to imagine. Jae Jae, the male, turned up for about three minutes, padding up and down and casting some predatory glances at those of us transfixed on the other side of the glass, before heading off into the depths, never to be seen again. Melati, his new mate (daughter of Hari, the last Sumatran tiger cub to be born at London Zoo), was eventually spotted lurking furtively in some vegetation in the most remote corner of the enclosures as possible. They were clearly no more in the mood to cooperate and pose for pictures than the aforesaid lion.

Wasn’t it ever thus with animals? And, of course, it’s a completely 19th century attitude to visit a zoo and expect the residents to present themselves on call, like actors before an audience, or circus animals.

The ZSL have certainly made a major effort to recreate tiger habitats. These tigers are superb climbers, keen on observing their terrain from towering vantage points. So, alongside the tropical foliage, there have been tall trees planted for them to scale, and high feeding poles – with scraps of meat alluringly placed at the top – entice them to follow their natural predatory behaviour.
It’s inevitable that, when a project as ambitious and expensive as Tiger Territory opens, it draws in the national press, some of whom have used it as an opportunity to query whether putting animals on display in an enclosure can still be justified in this era of high quality documentaries showing the wildlife in its natural environment. But this is surely to fail to acknowledge changes in understanding and presentation of captive creatures to the public.

A walk around London Zoo is itself a fascinating way of seeing how this has evolved since the early 19th century. One ancient curiosity is the Raven’s Cage. With its ornate ironwork, it dates from 1829 – a year after London Zoo opened to the public – and was originally home to macaws, then ravens and, from 1840, a pair of vultures. A sign tells us that ‘it’s not big enough for large birds now’ and it’s hard to imagine how it ever was; it survives as a listed monument and a celebration of London Zoo’s long history and its changing practices towards animal display. Another example is the more celebrated Penguin Pool of Berthold Lubetkin, dating back to1934. It’s a sleek piece of Modernist design, all curves and white paint, but the penguins themselves always hated it and, like the Raven’s Cage, it is now a desolate monument. These days, its former inhabitants look like they are having a high old time at the newly created Penguin Beach. It’s great, however, to see that the giraffes still happily reside in one of the buildings of the original zoo architect, Decimus Burton

Jae Jae, the male, born in March 2008

Clearly, there’s something a little sad about seeing an animal that should be ranging the wilds ‘cooped up’ in pens, cages or enclosures for the edification of visitors. But does this make it wrong? For me, as someone with a lifelong interest in nature and concern for its continued rape by mankind, no film could ever have replaced the experience of coming face to face with the elephants and lions when taken on childhood visits to the zoo by my parents. Those memories, the noises and the smells, will live me forever. They fired my enthusiasm.

And I could see that same look of delight in the faces of the schoolchildren there beside me on that freezing day at the Tiger Territory… each of them sent into raptures by the sight of Jae Jae just an inch away from us on the other side of the glass. On one level, being that close to a tiger eyeing us up as if we were that night’s dinner just works as a cheap thrill, but if only one child per day – one child per week, even – goes away inspired to become the conservationist of tomorrow, or has their attitude towards animals and the environment changed forever, then keeping creatures in captivity is surely worth it. One of the great changes in zoo displays now is the amount of information provided which puts the plight of these animals into context. There’s no excuse for ignorance now – and that just wasn’t happening thirty years ago.

And these tigers do need our help. The species originally came from northern Siberia, when that region was temperate and had large forests. But glaciation forced a southward migration into southern Asia and, over time, tigers adapted into eight varieties, differentiated by size and marking. Tiger Territory informs us of the sorry decline of species that were once plentiful – the Bali Tiger: extinct in the1930s; the Caspian Tiger: extinct in the 1970s; the Javan Tiger: extinct a decade later; the South China Tiger: ‘functionally extinct’ (not seen in twenty-five years). There remain about 300 Sumatran Tigers (the species to which Jae Jae and Melati belong), and there are real fears that these animals could be extinct within ten years.

The reasons for this include poaching and deforestation, reducing the habitats of these beasts who favour thick forest and jungle, as well as woodland zones and clearings. ZSL is involved in projects in Indonesia to restore tiger corridors and to fight illegal logging. But it needs money, and one of the chief means of sourcing it is via fund-raising from visitors. Some critics argue that the impact is negligible, a mere fig-leaf. But these zoos are the public faces of conservation, and right now, in this so-called ‘age of austerity’, when there don’t seem to be too many other people shouting out on its behalf, they surely deserve our support, not our condemnation.

see www.zsl.org for more information

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