An unnatural coupling

MARCH 2 — In January, a Russian zoo welcomed its newest addition with the birth of Tzar, the liger cub. Don’t worry if you have not heard of a liger before. This species is not the most common animal you can find.

Ligers are not endangered despite numbering a mere 30 worldwide. Nor is it being bred for conservation purposes at the zoo. In fact, ligers can only be found in captivity.

This is simply because ligers, as you might have guessed from the name, are offspring of the unnatural coupling between a male lion and a female tiger. Similarly a tigon is an offspring of a male tiger and a female lion.

Impossible occurrence?

The first question that comes to mind is probably: How can this be biologically possible since tigers and lions are of different species?; followed closely by: Does this mean that science textbooks need to be rewritten?

To answer these questions, we must return to the very definition of "species." The most conventional definition is given by biological species concept which refers to species as a group of organisms that can interbreed to produce fertile offspring

This definition is of course problematic because it does not account for organisms that are so closely related that they occasionally interbreed to produce hybrids. Additionally, we can see how this definition makes it difficult to group asexual organisms or organisms that have already gone extinct (since fossils give very little indication of sex).

Coming back to our big cats, although tigers and lions belong to different species, they are classified in the same genus i.e. Panthera. This means the two are more closely related to each other than humans are to chimpanzees. Genetically speaking, hybridisation between the two species is further made possible by the fact that most cats have the same number of chromosomes, 38 in total.

Animal ethics and welfare

While hybridisation is appealing, I would like to argue that the existence of hybrid animals like ligers or tigons corrupts the integrity of zoos as institutions that champion animal welfare and conservation efforts.

This is mainly because such couplings can never take place in the wild. Lions roam the plains of Africa while tigers are only found in Asia. Although their historical ranges overlap in the Gir Forest of India, there have been no reports of successful mating between the two species in the wild.

Yet, the confines of zoos have made such an occurrence possible.

As for animal welfare, various issues have arisen alongside the existence of hybrids. Liger cubs rarely survive more than a few weeks after birth and pose a risk to their tigress mums during birth due to their larger than usual proportions,.

As adults, ligers can grow up to 3.6 metres in length and weigh over 320 kilogrammes. Although their size might seem majestic to us, they are more likely to develop health conditions such as cancer and arthritis.

Aside from that, the existence of such hybrids adds no value to wildlife conservation. The resources spent on such creatures would be better off supporting efforts to protect or reintroduce the liger’s parent species in the wild. It is ironic to see a liger cub under the global spotlight while wild lions and tigers face a plethora of threats including poaching, habitat loss and human encroachment.

Sadly, Tzar is condemned to spend his entire life in the zoo, as an exhibit.

‘Natural spectacle’

I then blame the zoo authorities for their attempts to create a "natural spectacle" through inter-species breeding. Here, the spectacle refers to something visually striking that is able to captivate audiences from the general public.

But why wouldn’t they? By creating more "must-see" or "must-experience" exhibits, ticket sales increase instantaneously thus driving up profits for the zoo itself. Since there are only 30 ligers in the entire world, I am sure tourists from far and wide would flock to visit Tzar.

The eagerness to create a "natural spectacle" is evident worldwide. An example closer to home are the Giant Pandas on loan from China. Many Malaysians were eager to feast their eyes on this cute and cuddly species, so much so that ticket sales at Zoo Negara increased by 10 per cent in the first month of their arrival.

The danger is that ligers will evolve into a coveted commodity in zoos worldwide. Soon, every zoo will want a liger exhibit to keep the paying visitors interested. The danger is compounded by the fact that many zoos already have their own lions and tigers albeit in separate cages.

Who is to stop people from breeding them for zoos or as pets to be exported around the world at a moment’s notice?

The halfling star

There is not a shred of doubt that Tzar will become the star of this particular Russian zoo for many years to come. His presence will continue to be celebrated and welcomed by zookeepers and people who come to visit him throughout his life.

It is, however, anyone’s guess what new hybrid will be brought into this world, not from natural mating and conception but from artificial breeding practices motivated by monetary greed.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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