Stand motionless outside the Amur tiger exhibit at the Toledo Zoo and make note of your fellow mammal on the other side of the barrier. Watch it move without making a sound, alert and attentive while constantly surveying the surrounding area.
This is one of the great contradictions in nature. It is beauty, and the beast.
The tiger has that incredible, lush coat and its unique stripe pattern that even the best fashion designers have never quite been able to duplicate. It has eyesight that is six times greater than ours, keen hearing and even at 500 pounds it has the balance and equilibrium of a trapeze artist.
The tiger's large head, heavy skull, powerful facial muscles and jaw, along with its strong legs and leaping ability, have all evolved over millennia to make this one of the most efficient killing machines on the planet.
The Amur tiger is the largest of the subspecies of these great cats. Several of its relatives are now extinct, including the Bali tiger, Caspian tiger, and the Javan tiger.
The effort is on at zoos around the country, and through the work of conservation groups around the world, to prevent the loss of others.
The Amur tiger exhibit at our zoo serves multiple purposes.
Beyond the oohs and ahhs and the customary enjoyment of kids experiencing that unsettling moment of fear and delight when they first see one of these truly exotic animals, there are two very critical roles.
First, by putting these massive cats on exhibit, you immediately raise awareness. People marvel at its size, its bravado and the assets that make it an apex predator in the heavy forests of extreme eastern Russia where it still roams.
Toledo Zoo deputy director Ron Fricke calls the tigers living just off the Anthony Wayne Trail "ambassadors" for their counterparts remaining in the wild. We see them and we know that this is something majestic, something irreplaceable.
Secondly, a consortium of zoos and animal experts are using this captive stock to expand and strengthen the overall tiger population.
The World Wildlife Fund estimates that there are fewer tigers left in the wild than there are in captivity -- in zoos, animal parks, and private collections -- so these genes are precious.
The tigers in the zoo don't know it, but they are part of a sophisticated operation where facilities around the country are sharing their resources so that animal experts can ensure that a strong and genetically diverse population of Amur tigers continues to expand.
They hope it will never come to this, but if the zoo tigers are the last ones on earth, extinction can be avoided.
"If tigers go extinct in the wild, animals housed in zoos could possibly be utilized to reintroduce them into the wild," Fricke said, emphasizing that such a move would take place only after a careful examination of the factors that led to the extinction, and assurances that appropriate habitat was available.
Our best guess, based on fossil records, is that tigers have been around for close to two million years. Recently, it was thought that due to poaching and habitat loss that they had maybe 20 years left, but because of the efforts of those in the conservation and protection movements, there is a little more sand in the hourglass.
If you get out to the zoo, take in the dart frogs, the white-blotched river ray, the Luzon bleeding heart dove, and those nervous Meerkats. But don't leave the place without spending 10 undistracted minutes gazing at those Amur tigers.
You'll likely leave thinking this is something worth saving.
Someone once said that allowing the great cats of the earth to go extinct "would be like losing the stars in the sky."
They just might be right.
Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: email@example.com or 419-724-6068.
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