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Managing Tiger Species Survival in American Zoos

As government leaders prepare to meet in St. Petersburg, Russia, this weekend to discuss a strategy to restore and conserve the world’s wild tigers, zoos in North America have their own program to ensure the genetic health and survival of tiger species in captivity. Nat Geo News Watch contributor Jordan Schaul, who writes regularly about...

As government leaders prepare to meet in St. Petersburg, Russia, this weekend to discuss a strategy to restore and conserve the world’s wild tigers, zoos in North America have their own program to ensure the genetic health and survival of tiger species in captivity. Nat Geo News Watch contributor Jordan Schaul, who writes regularly about zoo conservation programs, interviews Mike Dulaney, a coordinator of the tiger species survival plan in North American zoos.

By Jordan Schaul

Sadly, one of the last wild Indochinese tigers reported in China was seen in 2007 and another was shot and killed in 2009. The perpetrator is now serving a 12-year sentence, which won’t, of course, bring the tiger back.

According to the World Wildlife Fund as few as 350 individuals of this ancestral subspecies exist in the wild, although others have suspected more may exist. They are found in parts of Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia.

The species also known as Corbett’s tiger is functionally extinct in China, existing only in zoos.

In 1995 Thailand’s Zoological Park Organization convened to develop a master plan for the captive breeding and management of captive Indochinese tigers held in Thai zoos and for those in zoos in neighboring countries.

In 2004 the subspecies was split into the Malay subspecies and the Indochinese subspecies, which impeded efforts to manage captive Asian tigers and complicated future plans for administering captive programs.

Prior to the designation of the Malay subspecies there were approximately 60 Indochinese tigers in Asian and North American zoos. Today there are less than a handful, including some in San Diego and at the Birmingham zoo.

This species is smaller and darker than the Royal Bengal tiger and has shorter and narrower stripes than the Bengal subspecies.

With a total of 3,000-3,500 tigers left in the wild, some may argue that the sub-specific designation is a moot point at this critical time for tiger conservation. Regardless, zoos are committed to conserving the genetic integrity of the subspecies that do exist in the wild. Three subspecies are already extinct.

Interview with colleague Mike Dulaney, Curator of Mammals, Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens

What tiger subspecies are managed in North American zoos?

There are three subspecies of tigers being managed by SSPs (Species Survival Plan programs) in North American Zoos: Amur (Panthera tigris altaica); Sumatran (Panthera tigris sumatrae); and Malayan (Panthera tigris jacksoni).

The Malayan tiger is a newer classification of a separation of the Indochinese tiger that is genetically different.

Malayan Tigers picture.jpg

Photo of Malayan tigers courtesy of Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens

Recent molecular genetic analyses of all tiger subspecies in 2004 suggests that the subspecies formerly known as Panthera tigris corbetti (Indochinese tiger [or Corbett’s tiger]) represents two subspecies: a northern subspecies (P.t. corbetti) and a southern subspecies found south of the Isthmus of Kra in Thailand which is referred to as P.t. jacksoni (Malayan tiger).

As it has turned out, all the tigers in North America which were once called Indochinese have been designated as Malayan based on the fact that they are descended from founders captured in Malaysia and therefore belong to this newly designated subspecies.

I thought that you had some Malay tigers at the Cincinnati Zoo?

The Cincinnati Zoo was the first zoo in North America to manage Malayan tigers with the importation of 1.3 [one male and three females] tigers from Asia between 1990-1992. This subspecies, however, was not designated as an SSP until 1998 when it was officially sanctioned by the Tiger SSP for that designation.

The Cincinnati Zoo’s Malayan tiger cubs.

Cincinnati Zoo video.

What is the status of the Indochinese tiger in the wild and how sustainable is the captive population?

The wild population of Malayan tigers is estimated to be around 500 animals. The current captive population in the U.S. is 54 animals (there is also a captive population in Asia of Malayan tigers).

The North American population is genetically and demographically healthy and our population goal is 150 animals.

At our current breeding rate (14 percent annual growth rate for the past 12 years) it would be feasible to reach this number within 15 years.

What is your role as SSP coordinator for this tiger subspecies and how did you assume the role?

As an SSP coordinator my task is to keep track of the population and work with the Regional Studbook Keeper for this subspecies, Kathy Traylor Holzer, to make informed decisions with regards to making sound breeding recommendations to keep the population healthy and growing. I was appointed as the SSP Coordinator in 1998 when this subspecies received SSP status due to my interest in these tigers and the Cincinnati Zoo’s successful history with them.

Can you tell us about their status in the wild?

Wild Malayan tiger populations continue to decline. While habitat conversion and fragmentation have contributed to their decline more urgent threats to the survival of this subspecies of tiger (and probably most others) are poaching for illegal trade, human-tiger conflict, and depletion of their natural prey populations.

Is there any current research being conducted on this subspecies?

While I’m not familiar with any research being done specifically on this subspecies of tiger, the goal of the 2008 National Tiger Action Plan for Malaysia is to have thriving connected tiger populations at carrying capacity in Malaysia’s forests by the year 2020. Three priority areas have been identified for tiger conservation: Belum Temenggor-Stong, Taman Negara and Endau-Rompin-Lesong-Labis.

Listen to a radio interview with Jordan Schaul and Panthera’s Luke Hunter on the topic of tigers in the wild.




Jordan Schaul is a conservation biologist and a collection curator with the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. He received his PhD in conservation/veterinary preventive medicine from Ohio State University and a master’s degree in zoology. He is a council member (ex officio) of the International Association for Bear Research and Management (IBA), a member and coordinator for education and outreach for the Bear Specialist Group of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, an advisor to the Bear Taxon Advisory Group of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, correspondent editor and captive bear news correspondent for International Bear News, and member of the advisory council of the National Wildlife Humane Society, which promotes high standards for wild carnivore care and welfare among private sanctuaries in North America. He is the creator of the Zoo Peeps brand which hosts a blog for the global zoo and aquarium community and two wildlife conservation oriented radio programs. He enrolled in clinical degree programs in veterinary medicine and has been on leave to pursue interests in animal management/husbandry science and conservation education.

The views expressed in this article are those of Jordan Schaul and not necessarily those of the National Geographic Society. Read more blog posts by Jordan Schaul.

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More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn