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Trailing the Big Cats

For a walk on the wild side, follow the tracks of a tiger or look at a lion close up at the National Zoo

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"The early '90s were dark days for tigers," says John Seidensticker. An ecologist, he worked for the Smithsonian in Nepal, then for the World Wildlife Fund in Indonesia and Bangladesh, and eventually returned to work at the Zoo in 1983. "They're endangered for two basic reasons, one short-term and one long-term. The short-term problem is poaching," explains Seidensticker. "Tiger bones are a valued element in traditional Chinese medicine. Bone is used in wine or in pill form, often for rheumatism, just as we take aspirin. Tiger bone wine is great for what ails grandpa."

Efforts are under way to promote acceptable substitutes, says Seidensticker, but getting people to use them may prove challenging. "It's not like bear bile, which is very big in East Asian medicine and is used to treat such life-threatening diseases as stomach cancer. And about the aphrodisiac effect of tiger parts: that's myth."

The long-term problem for tigers is the steady fragmentation and degradation of habitat that occurs when forests are burned or cut down and when prey — such as the deer and pigs that are also hunted by man — begin to vanish.

Meanwhile, at the Zoo, the four tigers and three lions enjoy 30,000 square feet of space shaded by oaks and Himalayan pines (whose flanks are padded with extra bark for protection against claws), three grassy terraces with dens, and a moat of clear water. A path or walkway runs around the habitat, and it is there, or at the machan, that you can watch these lovely creatures living out their lives.

In places glass windows have been installed in the walkway wall for the use of wheelchair visitors (who have access to the machan and to "Tiger Tracks" as well). Along the way are special alcoves, including the Kid's Stop that provides glass-fronted lookouts for children.

The Predator's Alcove, a mini-museum, features fossils and examines the ecology of tigers, lions and other predators. It also displays a bronze casting of a Tyrannosaurus rex skull, to remind visitors who was the greatest terrestrial predator of all time. Now life-size tiger paws are all very well, but this skull is an arresting sight. It sports six-inch teeth and jaws that extend four feet in length. But then the T. rex could grow 20 feet tall and 40 feet long, every inch of it hungering to gobble you alive.

Unlike lions, a tiger hunts alone, roaming up to 20 miles a night in search of the 30 or 40 pounds of meat it must eat during the course of a week. It may take as many as 20 hunts to bring in a kill that provides enough food. Like many hunters, the tiger is territorial. Where the prey is plentiful, say in Nepal, a female may need about 8 square miles, but on the far eastern coast of Russia she can require up to 200 square miles. Male territories are even larger but overlap with those of females.

Every cat lover has an overpowering need to pat a tiger or lion and scratch it behind its furry ears. This is not a good idea. The keepers know. The keepers realize that to the tigers they are a potential dinner. At the Zoo one does not go into the enclosure even with the nicest tiger.

Keepers must go through a series of safety gates (sign: "Please Don't Feed Fingers to Animals") to reach a tiger's indoor enclosure. There, while the big cat is outside, they check out any untouched food, any abnormality in the feces. They get to know cats and the clues they leave. Some cats are light eaters anyway. Some are stoic about illness and have to be watched for small signs of pain. Between the enclosure and the yard are two steel doors with dead bolts that set off a runway. Keepers move the cats along this runway with the aid of sliding doors on pulleys, color-coded for safety. Thus, doors leading into the runway are blue with blue handles, and doors inside the runway, used when more than one tiger is being run through, are yellow. In the evenings tigers are brought back inside.

This is the fun part of the keeper's job. The other part includes mucking out the enclosures and defrosting and weighing the ground meat for dinner. Rokan gets about four pounds a day. He is fed indoors through a food chute. Just in case someone gets the idea that it might be interesting to feed a tiger by hand, a metal feed pan has been hung on the wall by the food preparation area. The pan is torn half to shreds by a tiger's long, sharp canines.

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