I almost kissed Jaka, a Kiwi-born Sumatran tiger, at the Auckland Zoo.
His name means “Young Man” though he’s sixteen, old for a big cat. Yet he plays like a cub and relishes new scents. That’s why handlers regularly entice him with an array of aromas, from cloves to coffee, for enrichment.
During my visit, they piled a big mound of coffee grounds on his mat, smack beside the glass wall of his habitat.
Already, a huge crowd was gathering around for the noontime tiger keeper talks.
Before anyone can beat me to the spot, I crouched next to the mat and waited, my nose pressed against the glass, as child in a candy store would, waiting for Santa Claus.
The zoo is home to three Sumatran tigers. Jaka’s sister, Molek (which means “Elegant”) and her son, eight-year old Berani (which means “Brave”), live in the adjoining enclosure. They gave Jaka his own territory to avoid the usual macho spats.
Good to know that they’re part of the Sumatran tiger breeding program and fund anti-poaching drives in Kerinci Seblat, Indonesia, the second largest national park in Southeast Asia, home to a hundred Sumatran tigers.
These are the last of their subspecies left in Indonesia. Less than 400 survive in the wild and only 220 live in zoos worldwide
The Balinese tiger and the Javan tiger are gone forever after humans burned and cleared Indonesia’s forests to plant oil palm and acacia.
Palm oil is used in confectionery and baking as well as in toiletries and cleaning products. Acacia pulpwood, on the other hand, is used to manufacture paper.
Now Auckland Zoo campaigns for the labeling of palm oil products so people can avoid buying them. Consumer awareness should reduce palm oil plantations which destroy forests and wildlife.
But in Indonesia, tigers who don’t succumb to starvation and habitat loss from slash-and-burn practices fall to poachers. Traditional Asian medicines make use of their body parts in the stupid belief they can cure ailments and boost virility.
If nothing is done, Sumatran tigers will be extinct by 2022, the next Year of the Tiger.
Needless to say, I was glad to learn that proceeds from Auckland Zoo’s visitors – about 700,000 yearly, fund conservation. Add to that, their animal ambassadors put a living face to the threat of extinction, compelling people to act to save this irreplaceable big cat.
I’ve worked with tigers in three continents and I’ve been “owned” by half a hundred from three subspecies – Corbetts, Bengals and Siberians. I’ve hand-fed them, played with them, walked with them and slept with them.
But up to now, the sight of a striped feline descending the grassy runway like a supermodel never fails to take my breath away.
Jaka had the same effect on everyone else massed around his exhibit. When he trotted in to inspect his new toys, people sighed as one, excited and enthralled.
He’s a majestic half-ton cat, with the Sumatran’s characteristic darker orange fur and thicker stripes.
In front of me, Jaka stopped on a dime to inspect his coffee. I lowered my head, in the customary greeting of one tiger to another, and chuffed at him.
He pricked his white-flagged ears at the sound and lifted his curious amber eyes to meet mine. Then he blinked – the usual feline way of acknowledging other tigers or favored humans, though I was surrounded by jumping and screaming kids and too many adults snapping photos.
Nose-to-whisker, we crouched together as Jaka savored his coffee. He sniffed the powder, pawed it, chewed it, wrinkled his face as if about to sneeze, doing Flehmen – and wiggled his tongue as the powder stuck between his teeth.
Oh, but he was ecstatic. He rolled on the aromatic powder, staining his ruff, chin and chest fur with brown dust. On his back, he waved all four dinner-plate-sized paws in mid-air, like a kitten crazy over catnip.
When he tired of his antics, Jaka crept under the bushes, rested his head between his paws and closed his eyes.
I was nearly floored when a guy beside me blurted out, “The tiggy just had coffee! Why is he sleepy?”
By then it was mid-day, snooze time for felines of all sizes. The zoo’s three African lionesses also drowsed on their grassy island although they too blinked back a greeting when I hummed at them and batted my lashes.
The twin cheetah brothers – Anubis and Osiris, reclined regally on the grass. They looked amiable enough, purring as loud as motor trucks. In fact, I can hear them through the thick glass.
It’s hard to tell who’s who, however, unless I scrutinize those spots. Anubis’ spots spread out at the base of his tail while Osiris has five connected markings.
Anubis is the more serious and bossy cat. He looks forward to his daily strolls around the zoo, sauntering ahead of Osiris and ogling at the zebras and the giraffes.
But it’s Osiris who chases lures around his enclosure and goes after beasts a hundred times his size. He even attempts to pursue Burma, one of the zoo’s Asian elephants, whenever she goes out for walks with her keepers.
The 26-year old Burma hails from Myanmar. Everyday escort her to a 12 kilometer walk around the premises. Burma also happens to be an artist and paints artwork that the zoo sells to fund conservation efforts.
This grand lady shares her enclosure with inquisitive ten-year old Anjalee, who was born at Sri Lanka’s Pinnawala Orphanage for illegally captured animals or victims of the country’s human-elephant conflict.
Sri Lanka’s wild Asian elephants number below 5,000, less than half the total three generations ago. Displaced by a 20 million human population, the pachyderms are mostly shot, electrocuted and poisoned as they raid crops or break into warehouses. Over 200 elephants and 70 humans are killed yearly.
Anjalee’s mom was rescued as an injured wild orphan. Since coming to Auckland zoo, Anjalee has gained over 1,500 pounds and bonded well with Burma. I watched her trotting after her new friend, thoughtfully sprinkling herself with dust after their mud bath.
Elephant skins are sensitive. The mud and dust serve as sunblock to keep them from getting sunburned.
Observing Auckland Zoo’s charges, I realize the extent of New Zealand’s conservation programs. I was impressed.
Not only do they help threatened animals worldwide, they also pull back native fauna from extinction’s brink.
Because the country was geographically isolated for millions of years, creatures like the flightless Kiwi evolved without defenses against predators brought in overseas – opossums, stoats, cats and dogs.
Invasive gorse from Europe now covers most of the landscape. Loggers’ ships transported the fungus-like kauri die-back disease killing off the country’s ancient Kauri trees, for which has no cure has been found todate.
Conservationists set up breeding programs for endangered wildlife. Rangers trap introduced pests and clear entire islands. Trekkers disinfect their footwear going in and out of the forest.
But it’s a long ongoing battle.
And that’s another story altogether.
(To be continued…)
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