A new enclosure for the Amur tigers at Assiniboine Park Zoo will provide the endangered cats with about 10 times more space to prowl around.
Work will begin this summer on a 26,000-square-foot enclosure that will connect to an existing 2,900-square-foot space for the large felines, also known as Siberian tigers.
'That is obviously the dream'
The $350,000 enclosure, slated to open this fall, will include a pond and existing trees to provide cover for the tigers, said Don Peterkin, chief operations officer for the Assiniboine Park Conservancy, the non-profit organization that runs Assiniboine Park.
"I think people will be amazed how the tigers can disappear in the dappled shade," Peterkin said Monday, noting the mixed forest in Assiniboine Park is similar to the vegetation in the tigers' dwindling natural habitat in eastern Russia and northern China.
There are believed to be 350 to 500 Amur tigers left in the wild. Conservationists fear the species will exist only in zoos within a generation and could die out due to what biologists call a "genetic bottleneck" -- a limited diversity of genes among the remaining population of the species.
The larger enclosure will allow Assiniboine Park Zoo to breed more Amur tigers because breeding males and females must be separated after they mate, Peterkin said.
The zoo hopes to aid worldwide efforts to increase the number of Amur tigers and possibly release large cats back into the wild at some point.
"That is obviously the dream," said Linda McGarva-Cohen. She and her husband, James Cohen, donated $500,000 toward the enclosure, which is part of a larger $1-million expansion of the Asian cats area at the zoo.
The plan is to build two other new enclosures to increase living and breeding space for Asian lions as well as the Amur tigers, Peterkin said.
A total of $120 million in renovations are underway or planned for Assiniboine Park Zoo as part of a broader, $200-million reconstruction. The single largest component of the zoo's overhaul is the Journey to Churchill northern-ecosystems exhibit, slated to open in 2014.
The zoo also plans to build a new petting zoo and revamp its boreal-forest exhibits.
The Assiniboine Park Conservancy is also beginning to design a new plant conservatory with an expected price tag of $50 million. Once funding is in place, construction on the conservatory could begin in 2015 and wrap up in 2017, said Margaret Redmond, the conservancy's president and CEO.