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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"I sit in a machan, a tree platform, alone, perched over a kill, waiting for the tiger to return...all is still, completely still. Until I feel, and then hear, footfalls crunching leaves. The sound is steady, deliberate, and direct to the kill. I hardly breathe, knowing the slightest movement will elicit a deep, terrifying growl before the tiger retreats into the night."

So goes the dream of John Seidensticker, curator of mammals at the National Zoological Park, chairman of the Save the Tiger Fund Council and a great friend of the tiger ever since he pioneered the use of radiotelemetry in tracking these spectacular beasts in the wild.

Thanks to him and others, the National Zoo now has a machan of its own, where even children can get a close-up view of some of the tigers and lions that live there. Or they can also walk the 278-foot wooden elevated trail called "Tiger Tracks," to work the interactive information devices designed with children in mind. Both the machan and "Tiger Tracks" are part of the new "Great Cats" exhibit, which also features educational facilities, natural history specimens and lookouts for kids.

"Tiger Tracks" is a trip. You walk along the hillside, nicely landscaped with pampas grass and bamboo, overlooking one of Washington's more unexpected rural scenes, complete with a sparkling creek, and you are invited to read cunningly placed placards containing educational tips. Question on wooden book cover: How powerful is a tiger's bite? You open the cover: It can bite through a two-by-four. How strong is a tiger? It can bring down a 2,000-pound animal. There is all the information here that you could ask for.

There is an exhibit of bronze tiger paws, one taken from a plaster cast made of a tiger at the Zoo, an operation I would like to have seen, I think. You can fit your spread hand nicely inside one. There is also a bronze tiger tongue that you can rub. It is as rough as sandpaper. And here is a scale on which you can compare your weight with a tiger's 500 pounds. That is a fairly large male. The female weighs from about one-half to two-thirds as much as her male counterpart.

Following the tracks (of a tiger mother and her cub) along the trail, you learn about the risks of being a tiger in the first place: about half the cubs die in their first year. Also, they need to eat — a lot. For instance: Taj, the 14-year-old white tiger, a mix of Siberian and Bengal subspecies, bolts down 65 pounds of horse meat and oxtails every week. But then, he weighs 340 pounds and has to keep his strength up. He can expect to live another five or six years at the zoo, though in the jungle he would be running out of time at 14. Rokan, a Sumatran male, the smallest of the five surviving subspecies, is considered overweight at 338 pounds, so he gets only 30 pounds of meat a week. Kerinci, a 13-year-old tigress from Sumatra, where she was found as an orphaned cub, weighs 178 pounds and gets 62 pounds a week (she has a terrific metabolism and tends not to gain weight). Her daughter, Soy, 5, is bigger than she is. At 186 pounds, Soy eats 32 pounds of meat a week.

These animals are something special. Although any individual lion can outweigh any individual tiger (we'll get to the lions a bit later), tigers in general are considered the largest carnivores on land.

Carnivores eat only meat, of course, which means they eat other mammals that live on plants. Which means they need a huge amount of space, because their habitat has to include not only plenty of water and vegetation cover but also enough territory to support the deer and pigs that they eat and the plants that the deer and pigs eat in turn.

That's why there aren't and never have been all that many tigers around.

Today there are only about 6,000 wild tigers on the planet, mostly in India and Southeast Asia. It sounds like a lot, but even after 30 years of efforts by conservationists the tiger is endangered.


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