Tragedy at Jerusalem's Bibilical Zoo: Tigress Eats Her Cubs

Blow to international efforts to save Sumatran tigers from extinction – only 400 left in the wild.

Emil Salman

A terrible tragedy happened at the Biblical Zoo in Jerusalem at the end of last week when Chana, a Sumatran tigress, killed her two cubs and ate them – after years of efforts to help the species, which is threatened with extinction, to reproduce.

Chana came to the Tisch Family Zoological Gardens in Jerusalem in 2006 from the Ramat Gan Zoological Center (commonly known as the “Safari”), and was set up with a tiger named Avigdor who was brought from Germany. A special space in the exhibit was built especially for them to encourage them to have children. This was part of a worldwide effort to aid the reproduction of the large cats. There are no more than 400 Sumatran tigers left in the wild, say experts.

Chana had given birth to three previous litters over the years, but always stopped caring for the cubs after a short time and most of them died. In the latest births a month and a half ago, zoo staff managed to save one of the three cubs only after they started feeding it themselves. The decision to feed the cub by humans is considered to be problematic for the continuation of the species, since such offspring are considered “imprinted” and are expected to have trouble not only living in the wild but also reproducing.

Chana gave birth to three cubs in mid-November, and though one was too weak to survive without special care, the other two seemed to be growing normally and she took care of them this time. Zoo staff used cameras to follow events, but did not come near the tigress so as to allow her to raise her cubs by herself. The zookeepers had planned on entering the enclosure for the first time this week to examine the cubs and give them their first immunizations. But on Friday morning the staff discovered that the cubs had disappeared and were almost certainly eaten by their mother.

Dr. Nili Avni-Magen, the Biblical Zoo’s head veterinarian and zoological director, said cases of tigresses eating their young are well known both in the wild and in zoos. Usually it is a response to stress on the mother for various reasons. It is possible that this is somehow related to Chana’s past, though she is not known to have suffered any specific trauma at the Safari Park or Biblical Zoo, or suffered from “imprinting.”

Depressing is not the word, said Avni-Magen. “It is very painful and very, very sad. It was a complete surprise. We really thought it was behind us and she was on the right path. And we had already planned the next stage. We will draw our conclusions – it may be related to the behavior of the male [tiger],” she said.