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Conservation Conversation at BCS

Imagine you’re out in the field at night in the Russian Far East, in freezing winter temperatures. You’ve successfully sedated a wild Amur tiger, and now you need to carry out health checks, including assessing the animal’s heart rate and collecting a blood sample, by the light of a head torch. How do you know what is a ‘normal’ heart rate, or where to find the best vein? There is very little published material on veterinary care of wild tigers, but fortunately those working with captive big cats have been able to a mass a significant body of knowledge that can help you know what to expect and what to do. And that knowledge can increasingly be found on the Wild Tiger Health Centre online hub.

On Sunday 13th June, The Big Cat Sanctuary in Kent hosted a Conservation Conversation event with WVI Senior Veterinary Partner, Jane Hopper. Jane gave an inspiring presentation on how the veterinary care of captive big cats can inform the conservation of wild cats, as well as an update on the amazing resources now available through the Wild Tiger Health Centre.  

While a domestic animal vet can easily refer to a formulary, or find other published information, on, for example, drug dosages, there is almost no equivalent published material for wild tigers, making it very challenging. However, it is possible to learn from the experience of working with captive tigers, and refine the techniques so that they can then be used on wild animals. Getting ananaesthetic dose just right can be vital in a situation in the field where top-ups may be hard or impossible to administer, and this is where knowledge gleaned from the care of captive tigers can be invaluable.

Learning what is 'normal’ in terms of tiger anatomy and physiology is also key, so that you know exactly what to expect before you go into the wild. That could include knowing what is a typical capillary refill time for a healthy tiger – estimated by pressing the gum until white, and timing how long it takes to return to its usual colour – in order to assess the animal’s circulation. When you take a pulse from a femoral artery, you not only need to be confident about exactly where to find the artery, but you need to know what rate and rhythm to expect. Gaining experience from captive tigers – either first hand or through information collected by others – means knowing these things becomes second nature for goodfield vets.

And when it comes to clinical procedures, the same applies. Experience gained in captivity can make the difference between success and failure in more challenging field conditions. Taking blood from the jugular vein in well-lit, clean environment in captivity can go a long way to preparing you for what to do out in the wild, making it much easier to get a good sample smoothly and quickly.  

Routine vaccination of captive tigers is another important part of the picture. Blood can be taken from vaccinated animals whenever they have to be anaesthetised for any kind of health check or procedure. The samples can then be analysed over time to show whether vaccines are safe and effective, and this information can potentially be used in the long run to benefit wild tigers. 

Captive animals can also help their wild counterparts by providing images that can then be used by vets who want to be able to assess whether an X-ray or photograph is essentially normal, or whether it is revealing something significant or abnormal. Again, dog and cat vets have long been able to access atlases that show what’s normal and what’s not – but that has not to date been possible for those working with tigers. A bank of X-rays taken from tigers in captivity is will soon be part of the Wild Tiger Health Centre.

Biomedical samples from captive tigers contribute to the ultimate survival of the species. Blood that is separated and stored correctly can be kept for many years. Serum samples for example can show whether a tiger has been exposed to a disease, if it’s suffering from one now, or how well it’s protected by vaccination. Genetic samples are important when a reintroduction to the wild is being considered, in order to ensure that genetically appropriate animals are returned to an appropriate range. These can be collected from both hair follicles or blood.  Obtaining thefirst simply means plucking 10 or 20 hairs from an animal while anaesthetised,which can then be stored indefinitely at room temperature. The second involvesusing FTA cards – a bit like filter paper – which can be used to preserve asmall ‘circle’ of blood that can subsequently be sliced up to provide a number of samples for genetic analysis as and when required.

And of course, working with cats in a captive setting means that there will inevitably be post mortems to be carried out. Jane explained that most zoos in the UK send bodies to Dr Andrew Kitchener at the Royal Museum of Scotland, who is renowned for his genetic and species work. In 2017, he published work which indicates that there are in fact only two tiger subspecies – a mainland Asia subspecies, and the Sumatran tiger - rather than the six previously believed to exist. This hasn’t come as a particular surprise to vets working with tigers, who were already very aware that Sumatran tigers tends to require different drug doses, and sometimes entirely different drugs, from any other tigers. This ground-breaking reclassification would not have been possible without the contribution of zoos and wildlife parks, and for those working in tiger conservation it means that it may be less complicated to ensure the future of wild tigers than previously thought. Saving two subspecies, albeit with geographical differences, is a more manageable goal than preserving six distinct tigers. 

Having demonstrated the many ways in which the veterinary care of tigers in captivity contributes to the care and conservation of wild tigers, Jane went on to explain the vital role of the Wild Tiger Health Centre. The WTHC is an ever-expanding one-stop online hub for vets and biologists working to save tigers throughout their rangestates. It’s free to access for those who need it, and a unique source of information on everything about wild tigers and their health – from drug dosages and X-rays, to how to manage conflict animals and what tests to run if a tiger is suspected to be suffering from distemper. It was set up by WVI founder and big cat expert, the late Dr John Lewis, who was particularly passionate about tiger conservation. He was also the The Big Cat Sanctuary’s vet for many years.

The event raised an amazing £2,000 for the Wild Tiger Health Centre and a further £2,000 for other WVI projects. It wasparticularly lovely that John’s wife, Allie, and his son, Killian, were able to be there and accept the symbolic cheque. The funds will help ensure the continuing development of the WTHC, which John always considered his legacy to tiger conservation. There is so little information available elsewhere about wild tigers, and previously little connectivity between those working to save them in different range states.

In Jane’s words, “We should all be thankful –including tigers! – that John wrote so much of his knowledge down, and it is not lost. Recording information is so important.”

We are incredibly grateful to Jane for giving up her time to create and deliver such an informative and inspiring presentation, and to the Big Cat Sanctuary for designing and hosting the event.