December 21, 2006
Two months ago, a crowd of VIPs, guests and staff gathered at Melbourne Zoo for the official opening of its orang-utan sanctuary.
On the wind and over the chatter and amplified speeches, a big cat bellowed repeatedly around the rainforest precinct. The zoo’s carnivore team knew it was Binjai, the Sumatran tiger, then heavily pregnant with her mate Ramalon’s cubs.
Experienced tiger keeper Mark Turner and Binjai’s primary carer Sam Cooper, ever sensitive to the big cat’s wellbeing, assessed the roars.
Ms Cooper listened for any hint that Binjai may be starting labour. Thirty six hours later, before midnight on October 27, Binjai’s contractions began, and the zoo’s long wait to breed tigers again was at an end. Early next morning, the four-year-old gave birth to three cubs — two males and a female — in her nesting den.
It was a litter recommended under the international captive breeding program for Sumatran tigers, a critically endangered species. The pregnancy was kept secret within the zoo because there was a chance first-time mother Binjai would not go full term.
Mum was still the word after she gave birth because some or all of her kittens may not have survived.
Now well clear of that danger period and thriving at eight weeks old, the zoo yesterday proudly revealed its welcome additions — its first tiger cubs in 16 years.
It coincided with Helen McCracken, Zoos Victoria’s senior veterinarian, vaccinating them for cat flu and feline enteritis. It was a case of vaccinate then evacuate, as Binjai, a well-bonded, protective mother, might stress with separation anxiety.
Born in Rotterdam Zoo, Binjai was matched as a suitable genetic partner for Ramalon, now 11, by Sarah Christie, the carnivore program manager at the Zoological Society of London, who will decide later the future destination of the cubs.
Mr Turner and Ms Cooper see them as central to promoting the breeding program, tiger conservation and education.
“The best thing about the cubs is pushing the awareness thing,” said Ms Cooper. “It’s so scarily true that people say now it’s time to act or it will be too late for wild tigers.”
The cubs, which can be sponsored from the zoo as a “Living Gift” present, will not go on public display until at least late January or February.