Page last updated at 11:37 GMT, Tuesday, 7 July 2009 12:37 UK

Zoo tigers 'key' to Amur survival

Amur tigers
Two of the Highland Wildlife Park's five Amur tigers

Past plans to use captive Amur tigers to help boost the subspecies' wild population could be reinstated soon, a wildlife park chief has predicted.

The move would follow research suggesting fewer than 35 out of 500 big cats in the wild are genetically diverse for healthy breeding.

Doug Richardson, of the Highland Wildlife Park, said using captive animals had been mooted before.

The park at Kincraig has five of the world's largest cat.

Researchers Michael Russello and Philippe Henry of the University of British Columbia, in Kelowna, Canada led a team drawn from universities in Canada, Japan and the US in a bid to analyse the genetic profiles of the remaining wild Amur tigers.

The study confirms the lifeboat role that captive programmes play
Doug Richardson
Highland Wildlife Park

They sampled DNA found within the droppings of an estimated 95 individuals found throughout the Amur tiger's range.

The scientists said the results revealed the tiger was down to an effective wild population of fewer than 35 individuals.

Although up to 500 of the big cats actually survive in the wild, the effective population is a measure of their genetic diversity.

Mr Richardson said: "The study confirms the lifeboat role that captive programmes play.

"On an ocean liner you know the lifeboats are there, but you hope you never have to use them."

'Potentially dangerous'

He added: "These captives animals are completely unrelated to the current wild population.

"If done badly, the reintroduction of tigers is a potentially dangerous scenario, but there are different ways of going about it and we may have to start dusting off ideas on this that have been articulated in the past."

Mr Richardson said the process of reintroducing tigers to an area - such as habitat close to Russia's border with China - was complex.

It could involve releasing a pregnant female into an enclosure and allowing her young to be raised without them becoming familiar with people or feeding on domestic livestock.

The young tigers would be released into the wild once they were 18 months to two years old.

Potential clashes with wild tigers and their territories would have to be carefully considered.

Amur are the rarest subspecies of tiger.

A male and female and three cubs are kept at the Highland Wildlife Park.

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