World

First date for 2 rare tigers ends in death

Melati, a female Sumatran tiger, was killed by a male tiger that had been brought in to mate with her.
Kirsty Wigglesworth/Associated Press/File 2013
Melati, a female Sumatran tiger, was killed by a male tiger that had been brought in to mate with her.

LONDON — The courtship went on for 10 whole days. They were kept apart, but tantalizingly close enough so that each could see, hear, and smell the other.

When the matchmakers believed that the time and the place were right — Friday at London Zoo — the rare Sumatran tiger called Asim and a female named Melati were put in the same enclosure together.

He promptly killed her — moments after they were introduced for the first time.

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The animal’s handlers scrambled in vain to intervene, the zoo said, “using loud noises, flares, and alarms to try and distract the pair, but Asim had already overpowered Melati.”

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Keepers eventually were able to shepherd Asim into a separate paddock so they could safely get to Melati, the zoo said. Vets then confirmed that she had died.

“Everyone at ZSL London Zoo is devastated by the loss of Melati, and we are heartbroken by this turn of events,” the zoo added in a statement.

Melati was 10 and had been a longtime resident of the zoo. Asim, age 7, arrived from Ree Park Safari in Denmark on Jan. 29 with an announcement that trumpeted “New stripes in town.”

“Asim was chauffeured to the zoo in a custom-designed travel crate filled with top-notch tiger travel essentials — warm straw, climate control, snacks, and drinks,” the zoo’s statement said.

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The head tiger keeper, Kathryn Sanders, described Asim as “a handsome, confident cat who is known for being very affectionate with the ladies in his life — we’re hoping he’ll be the perfect mate for our beautiful Melati.”

The match was organized as part of a Europe-wide conservation program for Sumatran tigers, an endangered subspecies. The Sumatran tiger is found in the wild only on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, and the World Wide Fund for Nature says fewer than 400 exist today, down from an estimated 1,000 in 1978.

The zoo was optimistic about the two animals getting along, saying: “It’s early days but we’ve already seen some good signs — there has been lots of ‘chuffing,’ which is a happy sound they make to let each other know they have good intentions.”

But things went horribly awry.

The tigers were placed in the same enclosure after “careful monitoring,” the zoo said, in which experts “observed obvious positive signs, and felt it was the right time.” It added, “As with all big cats, introductions, however carefully planned, are always considered to be high risk.”

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The animals “were initially cautious,” but then the introduction “quickly escalated into a more aggressive interaction.”

Asim mauled Melati to death.

The tiger section was shut Friday and keepers were focused on caring for Asim.

The zoo, in Regent’s Park in London, dates to the 1800s and houses more than 20,000 animals. It describes itself as the world’s oldest scientific zoo, is estimated to receive more than 1 million visitors each year.