Chester Zoo's beautiful Sumatran tigers are a magnificent sight. They’re also incredibly rare. With only a few hundred of these precious animals left in the wild, the zoo are doing all they can to stop them becoming extinct. Jamie Bowman finds out about Global Tiger Day and the continuing efforts to save these beautiful big cats.

GLOBAL Tiger Day, often called International Tiger Day, is an annual celebration to raise awareness for tiger conservation, held every year on July 29. The goal of the day is to promote a global system for protecting the natural habitats of tigers and to raise public awareness and support for tiger conservation issues.

One of the many zoos across the world taking part in the celebrations is Chester Zoo where there is a long history of involvement in the protection of these much-loved but fearsome big cats.

In 2007, a male Sumatran tiger called Kepala arrived from Dudley Zoo to join the two resident female Bengal tigers, who left in 2008. The same year, the zoo acquired a female tiger named Kirana, but unfortunately it was discovered that the pair were related. Kepala departed to Dublin Zoo as part of European Breeding Programme and a new male named Fabi was brought in from Prague Zoo to form a breeding pair of Sumatrans, a critically endangered subspecies in the wild and so far bred successfully on three occasions since 2011.

"All sub-species of tiger are facing extinction in the wild and their numbers have been decreasing at an alarming rate for some time," explains Chester Zoo Carnivore Keeper, Lucy Manning. "Sumatran tigers are classified as critically endangered and there are as few as 350 left in the wild. This is due to factors such as their habitat being destroyed to make more space for humans to live or to grow crops, poaching and illegal wildlife trade in tiger skins and body parts for traditional medicines. "Sumatran tigers are smaller than the other sub-species, making them more agile and fluid in their movements. They can also be very sneaky and are good at hiding.”

As well as their conservation work in Chester, the zoo has also been active in Nepal where tiger populations have increased by as much as 63% since 2008 as a result of successful efforts to control illegal poaching.

However, the regions surrounding these parks also have some of Nepal’s most dense rural human population, composed mainly of very poor communities that rely heavily on forest resources. As a result, there has been an increase in human-tiger conflict, with people and livestock being attacked by tigers.

To help prevent Nepal’s success in tiger conservation being undermined by this conflict, the zoo teamed up with the Nepalese organisation, Green Governance Nepal, to engage the communities around Chitwan and Bardia in devising participatory approaches to ensure their safety, improve their livelihoods, and prevent retaliatory killing of tigers.

The project implements numerous activities, like the installation of predator proof pens and biogas plants but an important part of their job also involves to provide training opportunities on goat farming and organic agriculture techniques.

So far the zoo has worked with around 1,200 households across eight communities with work involving implementing practical measures to improve the safety of people and livestock; developing supplementary livelihood opportunities to reduce dependence on the forested areas where tigers live, and addressing behaviours which put both people and tigers at great risk.

The zoo is also carrying out extensive research in collaboration with the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit at Oxford University to learn how social change and ecological factors influence conflict dynamics and how these kinds of conflicts can be managed across the region.

There are many techniques that conservationists can use to investigate tiger numbers in the wild. Conservation Scholar Amy Fitzmaurice is one of those experts conducting surveys in Bardia and Chitwan National Parks as part of her PhD project at the university.

Amy uses camera trap images, tracks and scat data to estimate the number of individual tigers in their study area and then estimating the number of tigers living in the national parks and community buffer zones. She will also be able to use her data to map conflict hotspots and help reduce conflicts between tiger and human in the areas surrounding the national parks.

“Poo is very important for our research," she laughs. "By collecting tiger and leopard scats, we can conduct specific genetic analysis called mitochondrial DNA analysis to identify the species, individual and sex associated with each scat we collect. We can also use their scats to look at what they are eating by conducting what is called a PCR metabarcoding analysis.

"We use a new software called ‘Footprint Identification Technique’ to analyse the footprints we record in the field," she continues.

"The software uses series of tracks from known individuals of a species to develop an algorithm able to analyse new species tracks. The software uses 128 different points and compares this information to known species tracks identifying if the individual recorded is new or known from the software already. As part of this track research, we record leopard tracks as well as tiger tracks, to understand how these two top predators co-exist.

“We also use a technique called mark-recapture to estimate tiger populations. This way, we can monitor the number of individuals over time and space by using their individual stripe patterns on both sides of their body to identify them."

With three subspecies of tiger listed as Endangered (Amur, Indochinese, Indian subcontinent) and the other three listed as Critically Endangered (South China, Malayan, Sumatran), Amy believes the work conservationists are doing to protect tigers remains vitally important.

"When put together, the total number of tigers in the world was estimated to only 2,154 individuals in 2010 whereas the 1998 estimate indicated a total of 5,000 - 7,000 tigers left in the wild," she adds. "So do tigers still need saving? The answer is definitely yes."