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Discovery Center’s tiger breeding program, a sort of ‘Noah’s Ark’
January 15, 2016 Frank Marquez   

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Frank Marquez/Gering Citizen Nika, an Amur tiger, sits in paddock at the Riverside Discovery Center, awaiting the time she’ll be able to mate with a male tiger recently received by the zoo in November.

Nika has been patiently waiting. Set aside a paddock not too far away from an exhibit structure under construction, she preens, paces and spends time with her trainers.

An Amur tiger at the Riverside Discovery Center, she was selected for a breeding program this past year. After the selection last November, the Scottsbluff zoo and Lake Superior Zoo in Duluth, Minn., exchanged tigers. The Scottsbluff zoo acquired Ussuri, a male named for a river in the Amur region of Southeast Russia while Lana was shipped to Duluth.

The zoo is working toward uniting Nika, who has been with the zoo since January 2009, and Ussuri, both 11-year-old tigers.

After some discussion during the summer, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums made the decision to include the Riverside Discovery Center in the Amur tiger breeding program based on the health and age of tigers.

RDC participates in the association’s Species Survival Plan, a collaborative population management and conservation program that began in 1981.

Amur tigers, formerly known as Siberian tigers, are a critically endangered species. It is estimated there are between 300 and 400 Amur tigers remaining in the wild, found in isolated forests across eastern Asia, in parts of Siberia and China. The species suffers from habitat loss and poaching.

“The overall goal is to increase the population, and increase the genetic viability of the endangered species within the zoos,” Amber Schiltz, education curator in charge of all volunteer, education, events and outreach programs. Presently, the Discovery Center houses 14 endangered species of the 120 total animals representing 80 species – among them birds, mammals, reptiles, and fish. “In some great event, some day when there might not be any more tigers in the wild − we could see that in our lifetime − the saving grace is there’s a viable gene pool among captive tigers, (making it possible to reintroduce them into the wild some day). It’s kind of like a Noah’s Ark. It’s keeping the overall population viable in the event that one day it’s needed.”

In a zoo press release, Executive Director Anne James said, “This is a tremendous honor for the Riverside Discovery Center. Nika and Ussuri are genetically valuable in the captive population and a successful breeding between them could have international implications. This is an amazing opportunity to have a global conservation effort happening right in our own backyard.”

Denver Zoo personnel will mentor Scottsbluff zoo keepers on the delicate nature of the tiger breeding program. “In the wild, tigers are solitary animals only coming together to share an occasional meal or for breeding purposes. They are not socially communal big cats like lions,” said Peter Halliday, zoo director. “Upon completion of a required 30-day quarantine, the Denver team will guide us on introducing Ussuri to Nika and instruct us on how to recognize mating signals to time the breeding process appropriately.”

Schiltz added, “It’s not as simple as getting a gal and guy together. We are monitoring behavior and hormones. We’re collecting and sending Nika’s droppings to Chicago Brookfield Zoo, special lab. When we get the results back, we’ll cross examine it with our behavior charts that would indicate when she would be ready to mate. When that happens, we’ll put them together.”

Getting them together might happen this spring, according to Schiltz.

“As one of the smaller AZA accredited zoos, funding a breeding program is a financial challenge,” James said. “Therefore, we are forming a Tiger Conservation Team to help us accomplish our goal of rearing tiger cubs.”

So far, according to Schiltz, the costs for transporting the tigers, labor, building a new exhibit and veterinarian care has reached between $12,000 to $15,000. “We’re not getting a return on it; we’re just a part of a larger picture of conservation,” she said.

Those wishing to have an actual hand in species conservation will receive rewarding benefits as part of the program. Membership levels are $500 and $1000; donors will be honored on a Tiger Conservation Team sign at the tiger exhibit. Top-tier donors will also receive an individual plaque and tiger photograph. If and when cubs are conceived, these donors will be the first members of the public to see them. Participants will receive periodic updates on the tiger breeding program and will be among the first to know if and when cubs are born.

Halliday cautions that cubs are not guaranteed. “It’s totally up to the tigers and Mother Nature, but we will make our best effort to ensure success,” he said.

The tiger exhibit is currently undergoing modifications and the tigers are not on view.

For more information or to make donations, visit www.riversidediscoverycenter.org or call 308-630-6236.

Courtesy photo Ussuri, a male Amur tiger named for a river in the Amur region of Southeast Russia, will be paired with Nika, a female, as part of the conservation breeding program at the Riverside Discovery Center in Scottsbluff.

Frank Marquez/Gering Citizen Riverside Discovery Center zoo keepers Laurel Hauf, Tori Reynolds, and Adrianne Leopard play an important role in the tiger breeding program by tracking the behavior of tigers Nika and Ussuri.
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