FORT WAYNE -- Visitors to the Fort Wayne Children's Zoo next season will see at least one new tiger and probably two.
Female Sumatran tiger Kemala is already on her way to the Toronto Zoo, and plans are for male Teddy to move, as well.
"The tiger population is changing," said Cheryl Piropato, the zoo's education and communications director. "But the plans aren't complete."
Because Sumatran tigers are so rare – the World Wildlife Federation estimates there are fewer than 400 left in the wild – the captive population is managed by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and its conservation breeding program.
Officials found a good match for Kemala in Toronto, Piropato said, and hopefully there will be cubs in the future.
Though Teddy was born in a litter of cubs here, the zoo isn't big enough to be a breeding facility, so plans are for Teddy to move somewhere else, again in hopes of producing cubs.
Piropato didn't want to discuss specifics for Teddy, however, because plans still could change.
"Sometimes these things change for all sorts of reasons," she said.
And zoo officials don't know who might replace the 200-pound cats.
"The ultimate plan would be to have two tigers we can exhibit together," Piropato said. But they will probably not be a mating pair. "We really don't have enough room for cubs."
But just as finding good matches for breeding is a challenge, so is finding two non-breeding tigers that can be together. Tigers are by nature solitary, and can also be territorial. They are also incredible predators.
"Putting two males together, if they're brothers, that can work," Piropato said, "but even introducing adult males and females to each other can be challenging."
Sumatran tigers are a subspecies of tiger, and despite their size are one of the smallest tigers – Bengal tigers, for example, weigh around 550 pounds.
Sumatran tigers live only on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, but their habitat there is being lost quickly to palm oil plantations.
While it can be frustrating to see animals move to other zoos, modern zoos are as much or more about ensuring the survival of threatened and endangered species as they are about displaying the animals.
"We're trying to conserve what could be the last of these species," Piropato said. "A couple of tiger subspecies have become extinct in the last century. The Siberian tiger is even more endangered.... But it's a cooperative endeavor – we can't save the captive tiger population by ourselves with one or two cats."
Those considerations even play a role in exhibit design. Visitors to the Tiger Forest know the chance of actually seeing more than just a twitching tail or a glimpse of striped hide are low.
"Tigers by nature are solitary animals, and we have talked about making changes to the exhibit to facilitate viewing, but it's always a balance between meeting the needs of the animal that wants to hide and the needs of the guests, which want to see it," Piropato said.
Whatever happens, she said, visitors should rest assured there will be a very large predator in the Tiger Forest when the gates open for the 2013 season.
"We will have tigers in our tiger exhibit this spring," she said.