Captive tigers can learn to hunt

Do captive-born animals have what it takes to survive in the wild? That’s a crucial question to answer because some types of animals are likely extinct in their natural habitat and must be reintroduced from zoos or nature reserves. If these coddled creatures can’t fend for themselves in the real world, efforts to establish a wild population are doomed.

In a new study, researchers investigated a key survival skill: hunting. The team studied 12 South China tigers that were born in zoos or at the Laohu Valley Reserve in South Africa. People last observed this tiger subspecies in the wild in 1970, and managers hope to reintroduce captive South China tigers into their natural habitat.

The researchers tested the tigers’ hunting prowess in two 100-hectare enclosures at the South Africa reserve. One enclosure, called Camp A, provided more shrub cover; the other, Camp B, had more open spaces. Each enclosure contained blesbuck, a type of antelope, and occasionally other animals such as baboons and steenbok. The tigers and their prey were allowed to roam freely.

The researchers tracked each tiger for 20 to 31 days per enclosure and counted the number of remaining blesbuck each day using spotting scopes or binoculars. If a tiger failed to kill a blesbuck for six days and looked weak, the team provided some food; this was repeated two days later if needed. The researchers also visited possible feeding sites and looked for the remains of prey.

All of the tigers killed at least some prey, the team reports in Biological Conservation. Some tigers performed very well: in Camp A, one male successfully hunted seven blesbuck in three weeks, and one female killed seven blesbuck, two baboons, and a Cape porcupine in five weeks. But others struggled. For instance, one male killed only a leopard tortoise and a steenbok over the entire study.

The results show that tigers raised in captivity can learn to hunt, the authors write. However, the wide variation in performance suggests that managers should evaluate animals for hunting ability before deciding which one to release into the wild.

Not surprisingly, the tigers fared better in the enclosure with more shrub cover. They should be reintroduced to areas with plenty of hiding places so they can successfully stalk their prey, the authors say. Roberta Kwok | 8 October 2015

Source: Fabregas, M.C., G.T. Fosgate, and G.M. Koehler. 2015. Hunting performance of captive-born South China tigers (Panthera tigris amoyensis) on free-ranging prey and implications for their reintroduction. Biological Conservation doi: 10.1016/j.biocon.2015.09.007.

Image © J. Patrick Fischer | Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)