San Diego Zoo Safari Park’s Tiger Trail leads to better understanding

Posted Saturday, Jun. 28, 2014  comments  Print Reprints

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Lori Gallo is feeding chunks of beef heart to Conrad, who is 2 years old and possessed of a piercing stare and incisors that could — make that, would — rip you apart if given a chance.

“Conrad is a real tiger, from Day One,” says Gallo, a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. “He has a very intimidating, intense personality — unlike his brother, who is more calm and collected.”

The park has had Sumatran tigers, the most endangered of six subspecies of tigers, since the late 1970s. But, before now, visitors had to have luck on their side to get a glimpse of them and hope that the animals were not hiding in the bush when the spectator tram passed overhead.

All that changed in late May with the opening of new digs for the park’s six Sumatrans. Fourteen months in the making, the 5.2-acre Tull Family Tiger Trail cost $19.5 million and brings curious humans within inches of the tigers — thanks to tempered glass and other safety features.

Children can play tug-a-war with a tiger, with the animal grasping a rope in its teeth and the child, safe behind the glass, grabbing the rope by hand. A children’s play area has a log step, rope climbs and a slide, part of a simulated logging camp (rampant logging is destroying the tigers’ habitat in their homeland).

The modern visitor to zoos and animal parks demands a close-up view of the animals. Numerous projects like the new Rainforest of the Americas at the Los Angeles Zoo are determined to provide that immediacy.

Safari Park keepers hope the new Tiger Trail will lead to greater public support for conservation projects aimed at forestalling the decline of the endangered Sumatran tiger. An estimated 400 Sumatran tigers remain in the wild, and that number decreases each year due to poaching and deforestation on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. There are about 350 Sumatran tigers in 55 zoos and parks (the Los Angeles Zoo has a female Sumatran).

The trend line in the wild is ominous: By century’s end, this subspecies is at great risk of being completely exstinct in the wild. The forest is being cleared to produce palm oil, used in cosmetics and candy. To rally public support for captive breeding and other conservation projects, Randy Rieches, curator of mammals at the Safari Park, says the public needs to know of the Sumatrans’ plight.

“If you want to develop conservation projects, you need to get where guests, members of the public, can see the animals,” he explains. “It’s absolutely necessary.”

Thomas Tull, chairman and chief executive of Legendary Pictures, whose latest movie is Godzilla, contributed $9 million toward the project. Tull is on the foundation board of the Zoological Society of San Diego.

“We simply cannot let these magnificent animals move toward the brink of extinction,” Tull notes.

The zoo is involved in two conservation projects in Sumatra — at Way Kambas National Park and Gunung Leuser National Park — to aid the tiger. Safari Park keepers always have bars between them and the big cats, particularly at feeding time. Six days a week the Sumatrans are fed meat. One day a week, they fast for the sake of their health.

“We don’t want fat tigers,” Rieches says. “People think a fat cat is a healthy cat. But with extra weight comes health problems.”

The Sumatran tiger is the smallest of the tiger subspecies. But, at more than 6 feet in length and 250 pounds, Conrad remains an imposing presence when he stretches up, balances on his rear legs and puts his front legs on the glass.

When a visitor is near the exhibit, Conrad and the others stare directly, and their throaty roars are ferocious. Reiches offers a reminder: “You’re prey.”

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