Korean zoos seek suitable mates for the country’s tigers

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Korean zoos seek suitable mates for the country’s tigers


A Siberian tiger lounges after lunch at Seoul Zoo, Gyeonggi. Its 24 Siberian tigers have been registered in the International Tiger Studbook. By Jeon Min-kyu

Maengho, Yongho, Hoguk, Seungli and Daehan were lying in the early afternoon shade digesting their one meal of the day - a freshly plucked chicken - and were paying little attention to the dozens of gawking visitors.

The five Siberian tigers are used to the attention. Along with 19 others at Seoul Grand Park in Gwacheon, Gyeonggi, about an hour’s drive south from central Seoul, Maengho and Co. have been showered with publicity since reports emerged that they have been registered with the International Tiger Studbook at Leipzig Zoo in Germany and endorsed by the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

Another 28 former resident Siberians at the zoo were also included in the studbook, an official list of animals whose parents are known.

In other words, a certified international expert has testified that these tigers are purebred and, as a result, officials at Seoul Grand Park, which is now known as Seoul Zoo, say it will be easier to set up international matches for the tigers. If the endangered animal is to survive, international matches are crucial.

Conservation, a step closer

The Siberian tiger, better known to Koreans as the Korean tiger or Mount Paektu tiger, is categorized as an endangered animal by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.

Its level of endangerment is high, listed as Cites Appendix I, the highest level of endangerment according to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. In the latest development concerning these animals, Russia and China have agreed to establish a cross-border nature reserve to protect them.


One of the endangered Siberian tigers at Seoul Zoo smiles for the camera. By Jeon Min-gyu

The IUCN estimates that less than 5,140 Siberian tigers are alive today, although an exact figure is not available. Korea’s zoos house less than 50 Siberian tigers. About 500 are presumed to remain in the wild, mostly across Asia, from Turkey in the west to the eastern coast of Russia in the east. Siberian tigers were last seen in the wild in Korea sometime in the 1920s.

The problem concerning Siberian tigers in Korean zoos is mating.

“Incest is a serious problem because there are only a few of them in Korea,” said Kim Bo-sook, the manager of the conservation team at the animal research division, as she showed us around the tiger section of the zoo in an electric buggy.

Incest, as is widely known, causes health defects and was responsible for the deaths of several cubs at Seoul Zoo, Kim says.

Worsening the problem is that if the tigers don’t breed every mating season, it gets harder for them to conceive.

One solution is international marriage. But without international certification that they are purebred, the tigers are like people without resident registration cards or travelers without passports.

“We experienced a lot of frustration because our tigers weren’t registered in the International Tiger Studbook. We were rejected by numerous breeding partners abroad,” Kim said.

Kim has been at the forefront of Seoul Zoo’s efforts to register their tigers in the studbook since 2005. It took the zoo three years to complete the registration process.


Experts from the International Union for Conservation of Nature assume there are still a few Siberian tigers living on Mount Paektu in North Korea. [JoongAng Ilbo]

Behind the prolonged registration were two Siberian tigers from North Korea - Nangnim and Lail. Seoul Zoo had purchased them from a North Korean zoo in 1999 and 2001, respectively. Coming from the communist country, the two had no records of their parentage, birth or growth before arriving here.

“I know that Pyongyang Zoo keeps purebred Amur tigers [another name for Siberian tigers] but I haven’t received any new information about their tiger stock over the years. Unfortunately, I didn’t receive any reply from Pyongyang so I couldn’t register these animals in the studbook,” said Peter Mueller in an e-mail interview with JoongAng Daily. Mueller manages the International Tiger Studbook at Leipzig Zoo.

The two tigers were eventually registered in the book after DNA analysis.

Hoping for a domino effect

Two Siberian tigers are currently under close observation at Seoul Zoo. Nangnim, a female aged over 15, and Cheongi, a male aged 5, have been caged together for breeding. Duman and Hancheong are scheduled to share a cage soon.

“Right now, they are getting to know each other. Once we see that they have accepted each other for mating, we will put them in the same cage,” said Pyeon Hyeon-su, the keeper of these tigers.

It is the Duman-Hancheong couple that sheds the most light on the remaining issues at Korean zoos.

Duman, loaned to Seoul Zoo from the Korea National Arboretum in Pocheon, Gyeonggi, last month, was a present from Chinese President Hu Jintao in 2005. The arboretum has two tigers in addition to Duman. None of these tigers have been internationally recognized as purebred.

“From what we know, Duman is not registered in the International Tiger Studbook,” said Hwang Roh-yeon at the Korea National Arboretum. “We’ve received no information from China.”

This means that the cubs Duman fathers are less likely to get their names into the studbook, too. Officials at Seoul Zoo hope that because all their Siberian tigers have been registered with the studbook, other zoos will follow suit.

There are positive signs this will happen. Cheongju Land in Cheongju, North Chungcheong, has contacted Seoul Zoo about the registration process for their five Siberian tigers. Everland in Yongin, Gyeonggi, which has eight Siberian tigers, has been registering their stock for years.

But what’s worrisome is that at this stage, it remains unclear whether the kind of domino effect zoologists hope for will occur any time soon.

Hwang from Korea National Arboretum says the arboretum isn’t likely to initiate that registration process on its own. “The two tigers [beside Duman] are more than 20 years old, and they haven’t been able to conceive,” said Hwang. “Our arboretum is just focused on keeping these animals and giving tours to the people.”

Several other smaller zoos expressed no interest in joining efforts to register. “We don’t really see why we have to do that. We are not really focused on propagating. We just intend to keep our tigers as they are and maintain the system as it is,” said Yun Byeong-cheol from Uchi Park in Gwangju where there are three Siberian tigers.

Officials at Jeonju Zoo in North Jeolla agree. “Unless KAZA [the Korea Association of Zoos and Aquariums] or Seoul Zoo initiate moves collectively, we’re not sure if we will register our tigers. It’s not an easy task for small zoos like ours and there’s no immediate gain,” said Seo Se-hyeon from the zoo.


Mo Eui-won, director of Seoul Zoo and president of KAZA, says that as of now the association has no plans to embark on such a project.

“The zoos differ so much in terms of their operations, interests and objectives. Unless all the zoos agree on a collective responsibility to the conservation of tigers, it won’t be easy.”

According to Mo, the issue has never really been raised during its over 30 year history, and that while awareness of the zoo’s function as a conservator has increased lately, it remains unsure whether or not the Siberian tigers’ registration with the international studbook will be raised any time soon.

Meanwhile, Muller of the Leipzig Zoo emphasizes the importance of registering the tigers to the international studbook.

“It’s very difficult to name a successful strategy [for conserving the tigers],” Muller says. “But the keeping of the International Tiger Studbook and the regional breeding programs are important measures for protecting and preserving the Amur Tiger.”

*The International Tiger Studbook was initiated in 1966 at the Prague Zoo in the Czech Republic. In 1972, the Leipzig Zoo in Germany took over the project. The studbook has been published annually since 1976, and is sent to 500 tiger keepers, nature conservation institutes, museums and libraries. At the moment, about 500 zoos worldwide have registered their tiger stock in the studbook, a total of 5,131 tigers (living and deceased).

The mythical tigers of Korean folktales

Bedtime stories in Western countries often start with “Once upon a time.” The Korean equivalent is, “Once upon a time when tigers used to smoke.” At least that is how the older generation tells the stories.

Although Siberian tigers were last seen in the wild in Korea in the 1920s, they regularly appear in Korean myths, legends and folktales.
The creation myth of Gojoseon, Korea’s earliest known dynasty, has a tiger as one of its characters. In folktales, tigers display different characteristics - sometimes scary, sometime friendly and sometimes even divine.

Because Koreans have for decades referred to Siberian tigers as Korean tigers or Mount Paektu tigers, many people here believe the animals are native to the Korean Peninsula.

“I wasn’t certain, but I have always assumed there is a breed native to Korean soil, especially those that live on Mount Paektu,” said Je Ji-yeong who was at Seoul Zoo in Gyeonggi with her boyfriend.

Pyeon Hyeon-su says one of the reasons for this misconception is the animals used to roam extensively over the peninsula. But Pyeon notes that these tigers travel such large distances that they don’t live exclusively on the peninsula.

Siberian tigers haven’t been held in Korean zoos for very long. In 1986, Lotte Group bought three Siberian tigers from overseas and donated them to Seoul Zoo ahead of the 1988 Seoul Olympics. The mascot for the Games was a tiger.

Two of the tigers, named Hodol and Hosun, were national celebrities until they died in 1993 and 1996, respectively.

“Before the Olympics, Seoul Zoo mostly kept Bengal tigers, but after the Olympics we gave them away and kept only the Siberians,” said Kim from Seoul Zoo.

With next year marking the year of the tiger according to the Chinese Zodiac, companies are expected to use this iconic animal to sell various items.

By Kim Hyung-eun [hkim@joongang.co.kr]
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