A Voice For The Wild Cats of the World
Earlier this month, Slate posted an article titled “Why White Tigers Should Go Extinct.” It is one of the few explanations of the problems white tigers represent in popular media. While zoos often list them as “critically endangered,” these do represent a distinct subspecies. While individuals may exist in the wild, they are, by and large, the product of breeding at zoos. Unfortunatley, this leads to in-breeding, and problems that go along with that. Most white tigers are cross-eyed in one or both eyes. The breeding of white tigers distracts from larger conservation efforts, and take space in zoos for truly endangered animals that would truly benefit from conservcation efforts. Since 2011, the Assocaitation of Zoos and Aquaiums (AZA) has banned its members from breeding white tigers.
One of the things I found truly surprising was the comments. Overall, there was ignorance about white tigers. Most thought they really were a distinct species, a view which may not be fully discouraged when they visit a zoo.
So how do zoos breed for conservation purposes? For an endangered species, the AZA creates a Species Survival Plan (SSP). They maintain a studbook and match viable animals with each other. They ensure the genetic lines remain strong and diverse. For example, Namfon and Cutter, two fishing cat cubs born in the National Zoo in Washington, DC, were born as the result of an SSP-facilitated match between the zoo’s female, Electra, and Lek, a male born in the Cincinnati Zoo. What’s more, the SSP creates non-breeding plans, to prevent certain gene lines from being over-represented in the captive population.
Maintaining an endangered species in captivity is a delicate balance, and requires coordination among zoos. However, in doing so, they can ensure strong gene pools, and prevent in-breeding.