Jan. 16 - Washington's Smithsonian National Zoo is playing Cupid to two Sumatran tigers in hopes they will produce offspring to offset falling numbers in the wild. The World Wildlife Fund estimates that only 400 tigers survive in the forests of Sumatra, their habitat decimated by deforestation and poaching. The zoo says a captive population will help ensure the species' long-term survival. Rob Muir has more.
Kavi is a healthy 10 year old male Sumatran Tiger. Damai is a three year old female. Together, they are the great hope of the Smithsonian National Zoo's captive breeding programme. SOUNDBITE: MARIE MAGNUSON - ANIMAL KEEPER/GREAT CATS UNIT, SMITHSONIAN NATIONAL ZOO, SAYING: " Sumatran tigers total population of captive and wild is probably about 500 individuals, so it is important that we keep a healthy, genetically healthy population, and every tiger born is a victory." ..and Great Cats keeper Marie Magnuson says that for Kavi and Damai, romance is in the air. In a carefully choreographed courtship, the pair spend time together daily and have actually mated. No announcements yet, but Kanai undergoes a daily ritual to get her accustomed to the feeling of an ultrasound probe against her belly. The treat of frozen blook helps. SOUNDBITE: MARIE MAGNUSON - ANIMAL KEEPER/GREAT CATS UNIT, SMITHSONIAN NATIONAL ZOO, SAYING: "I'm amazed how tolerant she's of been touched. A lot of cats really don't really like it." Female tigers don't ovulate until after they've mated but zoo-keepers believe the chances of pregnancy for Damai are good. The Wolrd Wildlife Fund supports the idea of captive breeding but, according to Sybile Klenzendorf, would prefer that what remains of their natural habitat be left alone. WWF camera traps have clearly revealed what the Sumatran tiger species faces in the wild. A curious tiger appears one night...one week later the same camera records a bulldozer levelling the forest. SOUNDBITE: SYBILLE KLENZENDORF, WWF MANAGING DIRECTOR, SPECIES CONSERVATION PROGRAM, SAYING: "We've seen about 50 per cent of Sumatra's forest lost in the last 25 years and that trend is continuing. However, there is still enough habitat for a good population of tigers, you know, there is 56-thousand square miles of habitat left on Sumatra, that is actually the size of the state of New York, and, you know, with those populations they are being poached and we are losing tigers, in conflict with people as the forest is gone, but I'm still hopeful that we can recover these tigers if we stop deforestation of what's remaining there." In the meantime though, captive breeding can produce a genetically diverse insurance population. The zoo says a litter of cubs for Kavi and Damai would be a boost not just for the zoo but the species as a whole.