Fatal tiger skirmish was ‘beyond normal’, says zoo chief
London Zoo says it did not introduce new male tiger too early
12 February, 2019 — By Richard Osley
Melati after the birth of three cubs at the zoo in 2015
A SKIRMISH between two tigers which left one of them dead was “beyond normal”, according to London Zoo’s chief operating officer.
Melati, a ten-year-old female Sumatran tiger, died after being overpowered by a new breeding mate during their first meeting on Friday.
Asim, a seven-year-old male tiger, had arrived from a safari park in Denmark last month.
The zoo in Regent’s Park said it did all it could to break up the fight, but the fatal encounter unfolded in a “split second”. Flares were lit and airhorns sounded in an effort to distract Asim but Melati had already been injured.
Kathryn England, the zoo’s chief operating officer, said: “Everyone was numb with shock, and the sheer disbelief was palpable. As soon it was safe our vets ran to Melati with every hope they might yet save her, and even these experienced professionals of the zoo world were entirely distraught to find they couldn’t.”
Ms England insisted that the zoo had not introduced the two animals to each other too soon.
“I have known Melati since I joined ZSL in 2013 and I was as enamoured with her as everyone else at the zoo,” she said. “She captivated everyone who worked with her; she was beautiful, majestic, spirited – and every inch a tiger. After careful observation, we all felt confident that the timing was right to introduce Asim to Melati. With more than 120 years of collective experience managing tigers between us, even with the benefit of hindsight I am confident we’d all make the same decision again based on the behaviour observed.”
She added: “Many of us at the zoo had seen them greeting, chuffing and sniffing each other, with no behaviour that caused concern. Several people from outside the zoo have remarked that 10 days seems fast to introduce tigers to each other. It’s not – it’s wildly variable and depends entirely on careful observation of their behaviour. Conversely, it can be risky to leave tigers showing an interest in each other out of contact for too long, leading to a build-up of tension and frustration.”
The £3.6 million Tiger Territory enclosure was opened in March 2013 with a ribbon-cutting ceremony led by the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip.
In the hope of breeding, Melati was brought in from Australia – she was born in Perth Zoo – and Jae Jae, a male born in San Francisco.
The pairing was a success and Melati gave birth to London Zoo’s first new cub in 17 years later that year. Tragedy struck, however, when the cub, before it had been named or sexed, drowned in a part of the enclosure’s pool not covered by CCTV.
Melati and Jae Jae later had three more cubs – Budi, Nakal and Cinta – who are now at other zoos.
Last month, Jae Jae moved to a zoo in Paris and Asim arrived; the tigers are moved around to ensure genetic diversity in breeding programmes.
Melati and Asim had been matched through the European Endangered Species Programme, a co-ordinated effort to save the species from extinction.
Ms England, who was writing on the zoo’s website, said: “They swiped at each other and reared up – all quite a normal part of them testing their boundaries. But in the blink of an eye, with no obvious provocation, they turned on each other and our years of experience told us it was beyond normal.”
She added: “Melati had a crucial role here generating advocacy for a species that is perilously on the brink; a role that she was clearly fulfilling gauging by the reaction to her passing. I would love to see this awful moment trigger a greater understanding of the challenges faced by her species in the wild. Melati contributed to a more secure future for tigers, not only through her cubs but through the affinity she built with our many visitors – reinforcing why zoos like ours play such an important role in the future of wild animals.”