Kavacha is no Casanova in Goldy’s eyes. So after nearly a decade of unsuccessful courtship, two Siberian tigers at the Blank Park Zoo in Des Moines will get an assist in the reproduction department that could greatly aid the species’ survival.
Goldy will undergo surgery to be artificially inseminated on Jan. 25. If successful, it would mark the first time this particular insemination method — advanced by scientists from the Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens — has helped Siberian tigers in captivity have cubs.
“My ultimate hope is that we can use this technology to aid the wild populations,” said Dr. Colleen Lambo, a veterinarian and postdoctoral fellow at the wildlife research center in Cincinnati.
“If we can perfect this technology with frozen semen, we can bring genetics from the captive population, or from other wild animals, into the wild population and improve their genetics,” she said.
Siberian tigers, after decades of hunting, poaching and habitat destruction, are critically endangered. Fewer than 400 are estimated to live in the wild; 143 are in institutions around the world.
Artificial insemination in tigers is far less easy than it is with cows and other farm animals, scientists say. The number of recorded artificial insemination attempts with tigers is between 50 and 60, but only two or three have been successful, Lambo said.
The surgical procedure Goldy will undergo in January is called laparoscopic oviductal artificial insemination. It is a minimally invasive surgery that puts male sperm into more direct contact with female eggs than other procedures.
This particular procedure has been tried just twice before. Though the method has worked on smaller cats, both attempts on Siberian tigers — using frozen semen — were unsuccessful.
Goldy won’t be the only one undergoing surgery in January. Kavacha also will be sedated so veterinarians can collect a fresh semen sample.
Goldy could be in heat in January, too, Lambo said. But that does not mean she will easily become pregnant.
“Once you put an animal under anesthesia, they are less likely to ovulate,” Lambo said. “That is part of where we have a challenge.”
Genetically speaking, Kavacha and Goldy are a great match. From everything Iowa State University scientists can tell, the two are reproductively healthy.
The chemistry, however, just isn’t there.
“I’ve seen her nearly take his head off,” Mark Vukovich, CEO of Blank Park Zoo, said of the tiger pair.
Tigers can weigh up to 700 pounds in the wild and measure nearly 10 feet. Kavacha, a 13-year-old gent who weighs 400 pounds, is a tad passive by tiger standards. Fourteen-year-old Goldy has no problems making him scram, even though she is over 100 pounds lighter.
Kavacha should not feel bad, though. Breeding success for tigers in captivity is quite low, Lambo said.
Aside from being a popular attraction for the Blank Park Zoo, there is hope that Siberian tiger cubs there would raise awareness about how imperiled the big cats are in the wild.
Said Vukovich: “We are doing this because it is about the only thing left to do to keep the species alive.”