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The Starlight Tiger Spotting challenge came about after we struggled to tell the four tigers apart on a recent visit to LIONSROCK Big Cat Sanctuary.
It boiled down to what criteria should you use to identify tigers?
Do you look at their stripes, body build, the way they run or walk, or is there a specific way that animal caretakers use to single a specific tiger out when they are in a group?
The answers could only be found on a field trip!
Head to bottom of the page to see if you can be a Starlight Tiger Spotter
So, on a wintry day we go to visit the enclosure of the Starlight tiger brothers in the LIONSROCK Tiger Unit with one of the chief animal caretakers, the very knowledgeable Kelly Lambe.
It is feeding time and the four brothers - Prinz, Pascha, Douglas, and Shir-Kahn – are very excited to see the white pick-up truck approach over the hill with their supper.
They come running from all corners of the enclosure, which is as big as four rugby fields, with Douglas leaving his place of choice at the waterhole. They pace the fences with enthusiasm, their lively dark eyes fixed on their caretakers’ movements.
It is a good time for Kelly to point them out one by one as they are all close-by and facing the fence. She identifies and compares specific markings on their cheeks.
The four Starlight brothers were part of a group of six tigers that were handed over to FOUR PAWS in Europe in November 2013. The four tigers, plus Radja and Khan, were part of different German circuses until they were sold to a small travelling circus, the Starlight Circus.
The tigers were exhibited in an enclosure, did not perform in the ring, and were not trained. A German veterinary authority found that their enclosures did not meet regulatory standards and contacted FOUR PAWS to take them into care.
Once at LIONSROCK in the Free State, the brothers were housed together in one enclosure and Radja and Khan formed their own alliance in another enclosure.
Even though tigers are usually solitary animals, Kelly says the Starlight brothers formed a close-knit foursome who get especially excited when they get their food.
“Their happiness level is very high then!”
The identification fun and games start with Prinz inquisitively walking by showing his left cheek - almost as if asked to! Kelly points out that there are a few stripes on his cheek forming a heart and this is a specific marking they look for when they need to identify him.
Says Kelly: “He is our Prince of Hearts.”
With Douglas walking up and down the fence anticipating supper, it is easy for her to show that this brother has a clear symbol on his left cheek.
“Telling them apart is like an art,” says Kelly, “but there are tell-tale signs. With Douglas it is an inverted triangle that clearly presents on his left cheek.”
With Shir-Kahn, now looking us straight in the eye and turning his head to chuff at us to deliver supper, Kelly gesticulates to his left cheek where the number 6 is a clear marking.
Pascha might be the easiest to identify as there is a upside trident almost like a pitchfork on his left cheek. He gives Kelly a glance as if to confirm this is his personal identification trait when she points towards the marking.
We test ourselves if we could now identify the brothers after Kelly’s lesson. With each of them running with their evening meals in their mouths to their separate eating spots and settling down with supper, we slowly try to make out the markings.
We quickly admit that you do not learn how to identify a tiger in one afternoon! Starlight Tiger Spotting especially is clearly an art. For the animal caretakers it might not be a guessing game, but for us it will be a while before it comes at the first glance.
"These are markings that you can rely on to identify them with, but it is very subjective and is also what might work for you as an individual. You might develop your own way or find other markings in their faces. With time and exposure to the animals it becomes easier."
- Kelly Lambe, Chief Animal Caretaker at LIONSROCK Big Cat Sanctuary
She explains that the identification is a very necessary art to master as the animal caretakers must be very sure to get medication to the right individual, as well as any supplements that they need to take.
Says Kelly: “Every animal needs the best care and treatment. Being able to tell them apart makes it possible for us to correctly medicate them if need be and to treat them as individuals.”
Kelly points out that certain markings will however look almost the same for all tigers, for example, the white eye-like markings on tiger ears. These work as an identifying mechanism for cubs when they are walking through thick undergrowth and need to follow their mother.
The group is clearly a favourite with Kelly. She says they do have their brotherly fights, but they have “no issues being together. They get along nicely most of the time as they are all laid-back.”
“Prinz is quite shy, while Shir-Kahn is adventurous. Pasha is quite active, and Douglas is boisterous but easily follows the lead of the others. They are all good, strong swimmers who like to play around in their waterhole. This is really their happy place.”
Now it is your turn to do the Starlight Tiger Spotting challenge. We put together a few photographs of the Starlight Tigers. Can you cut it as a Starlight Tiger Spotter and match each tiger with its marking?
Once you've taken a guess, hover over the image to see if you were correct.