There Are Only 250 Malayan Tigers on Earth, But the Population Just Grew by Two

The Malayan tiger is critically endangered, but captive breeding programs can help sustain the species.

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09 November 2016, 3:27am

Image: Julie Larsen Maher/WCS

This article originally appeared on Motherboard.

Earlier this year, two tiny, striped balls of fuzz came into the world at the Bronx Zoo. But the two female Malayan tiger cubs, named Nadia and Azul, were fragile. Their mother wasn't providing them with enough care, so zookeepers kept the cubs a secret from the public.

Throughout the spring, keepers hand-reared the cubs, bottle-feeding them every three hours and weighing them daily. In September, they were finally matured enough to make their public debut:

There are only an estimated 250 Malayan tigers left on the planet. Like all tiger subspecies, these big cats are threatened by habitat destruction and poaching. But Malayan tigers are significantly at risk—the International Union for the Conservation of Nature lists them as critically endangered, the most severe classification short of becoming extinct in the wild. So introducing two more into the world is notable.

Captive breeding, of course, is a point of contention for some conservationists, who argue that efforts are better spent trying to protect the animal in its natural habitat. But groups like the Wildlife Conservation Society, which owns the Bronx Zoo, believe it can be one piece towards preserving and recovering the species.

Not only does displaying the animals raise public awareness about the species' plight, they argue, but understanding how to make more tigers could be our only hope if we fail to protect them in the wild. WCS and other conservation groups including the World Wildlife Fund and Panthera, also work to protect the species in the wild through anti-poaching efforts and habitat preservation.

Image: Julie Larsen Maher/WCS

Over the last few weeks, the 10-month-old cubs have continued to grow and learn new skills, nearly doubling in weight from 40 lbs in June to 75 lbs today. Captive animals need to occasionally interact with human caretakers—for things like medical checkups—so the cubs have learned some simple commands, like "sit," "lay down," and "stand," according to Pat Thomas, vice president of WCS and the Bronx Zoo General Curator.

"They have adjusted extremely well to their exhibit and off-exhibit 'bedrooms,'" Thomas, who is part of the tigers' keeper team, said. "The fact that they have each other to play with, and be comforted by, has gone a long way to help them adapt to their home at [the Tiger Mountain exhibit.] They have proven to be very inquisitive and have explored all areas of their new home."

This is the third litter of Malayan tiger cubs that have been born at the Bronx Zoo, adding to the approximately 70 Malayan tigers in captivity in North America. Captive breeding isn't always the ideal solution to wildlife conservation, but it can be a useful tool in making sure we don't let the numbers dwindle even further.

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