Wild Tiger Health Project
Created by Dr John C M Lewis

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Guidelines: Facility design and location

Due to the widely varying circumstances in which tiger rehabilitation facilities will be needed, it is not appropriate here to provide rigid design specifications. What works in one range state or location may not in others, and therefore only suggestions and guidelines are offered here. Nevertheless, whatever local solutions are found it is essential that the key principles of tiger rehabilitation are considered at all times – starting with the design stage.

  • The location and design of any tiger rehabilitation facility should be chosen to minimise human-tiger contact. Specifically, it should be sited well away from human habitation and tourist routes.
  • The landscape should be typical of tiger habitat in the region.
  • Vehicle access will be required even if the site is relatively remote. 
  • A local source of clean water is important.
  • Valuable construction advice can be sought from experienced zoo personnel, although enclosure specifications will need to be higher than that for captive tigers.
  • It is far easier and safer to erect the facility on a relatively flat site rather than on severe slopes. If building on more dynamic terrain, this is likely to restrict vehicular access to the enclosure, which could be an issue in an emergency or even just to gain access to dart a nervous tiger.  It also increases the cost and complexity when constructing or maintaining the enclosures.

Perimeter fence: For public safety and security reasons all animal areas should be surrounded by a strong wire perimeter fence.

  • This should enclose all holding areas for tigers and prey species, plus associated veterinary facilities. Ancillary buildings for staff and remote monitoring can be sited outside the perimeter fence.
  • The perimeter fence should be at least 2 – 2.5 meter high and designed to deter unauthorised entry by people.
  • The fence should have a double safety gate for vehicle entrance & exit. (i.e. to enter or exit the area enclosed by the perimeter fence a vehicle passes through one gate which is then closed behind it before proceeding through the second gate).
  • There should be a track within the fence that allows a vehicle to be driven up to each tiger enclosure. If it is not practical to be able to drive a vehicle around the outside perimeter of enclosures, at the least a suitable pedestrian path to allow checking of the enclosure fences should be provided.
  • For reasons of disease control wild and domestic animals should be excluded from the facility within the perimeter fence. If necessary feral animals such as cats and dogs should be caught in live traps and removed.
  • The integrity of the perimeter fence must be checked daily.

Tiger enclosuresIdeally tiger enclosures should be built as separate bio-secure units within the rehabilitation facility.

  • A suggested simple design for a bio-secure unit comprises a solid-walled and roofed den connected to a small outdoor enclosure which in turn is connected to a much larger main outdoor enclosure where the tiger will spend most of its time. A schematic diagram is given below although the components can be configured in different ways to suit the available space and tiger management requirements, and the sizes of the den, small enclosure and large enclosure are not to scale. Although the diagram show the enclosures as rectangular, there are advantages in constructing them in a more circular shape.

Schematic diagram showing a bio-secure tiger unit. Double-headed orange arrows indicate horizontal sliding animal doors or gates, single-headed red arrows indicate human access doors, and the closely paired black single-headed arrows indicate vehicle gates.

  • Tigers in different bio-secure units should not be able to see each other.
  • Bio-secure units can be used for quarantine or housing potentially infectious animals.
  • To avoid excessive aggression or stress, there should ideally not be a common fence line between individual bio-secure units, and if possible, units should be at least 20 metres away from each other to limit the spread of disease.
  • If multiple bio-secure enclosure units are built, more flexible management is possible if a tiger can be moved from one into another or be given access to more than one enclosure, especially where tigers need to be held for prolonged periods. Connection tunnels or corridors between main enclosures of bio-secure units must be fitted with lockable, horizontal slides at each end. This arrangement allows greater space for animals that need it, safe enclosure cleaning and repair when necessary, yet retains the bio-security of each unit when required.

Dens: On entry into a rehabilitation facility it will usually be advisable to confine a tiger for a short period in a dark, secure den, connected to one side of the smaller outdoor enclosure. Confinement and darkness will generally reduce the initial stress of capture. Badly injured or seriously ill tigers may need longer confinement to allow intensive care, as will young orphaned cubs. The den can be used as a “safe” place even after release into larger enclosures.

  • Dens are small, simple, solid-walled and roofed houses measuring a suggested 3m x 3.5m, with good through ventilation.
  • The den should be usually quite dark, but lighting should be available.
  • It may help tigers (especially orphaned cubs) calm down if large quantities of forest leaves and sticks are placed on the floor of the den (Dr Ari Maulana, pers. comm).
  • A raised wooden shelf should be provided in the den for tigers to rest and feed on and hide underneath. For reasons of disease control, this shelf should be renewed for each tiger.
  • A lockable sliding horizontal door (1 metre wide x 1.5 metres high) operated from outside the enclosure should be provided which allows the tiger to be shut in the den or out in the smaller outdoor enclosure.
  • A safe method to provide food and water to a tiger in the den must be built in.
  • Design that allows a tiger to be safely unloaded from a transport box directly into the den without anaesthesia is desirable, either from outside or through the den door to the smaller enclosure. In either case, the transport cage must be secured to the door frame before opening.
  • A keeper space can be included at the back of the den to allow quiet observation or treatment. Close observation may be required for severely injured or sick individuals, although using CCTV is preferable for this purpose as it reduces human-tiger contact.

The smaller outdoor enclosure: The smaller outdoor enclosure serves as an area in which new arrivals can be closely observed (by CCTV preferably), and initial treatments continued if necessary. They also facilitate capture of animals when necessary. Moving a tiger from a main enclosure to a familiar smaller enclosure before darting can make the process far easier and therefore far less stressful. While a tiger is held in the main enclosure, allowing access to the smaller enclosure may help develop familiarity, especially if food (live or dead) is provided there from time to time.

  • It is suggested that the minimum size of each small enclosure should be 20 metres x 20 metres.
  • Small enclosure design should avoid hazards such as large pools, caves, high trees etc. However, a relatively open shelter must be provided against rain, wind and excessive heat. Generally, a smaller enclosure would have less dense vegetation than the larger main enclosure.
  • In most circumstances it will not be possible to construct a wire mesh/ barred roof, although this has some merits. If it is possible the height of the roof need not be greater than 4 metres.
  • If not a meshed roof, the small enclosure fence should be constructed as for large enclosure below.
  • All external fences of the enclosure should be a solid boundary to ensure that the tiger cannot see humans or other animals (e.g. fence covered with sheeting, vegetation).
  • Corners of the fence line should be rounded rather than square 90 degree angles.
  • Double vehicle gates must be provided to gain entrance into the enclosure.
  • Smaller enclosures should have at least one sliding horizontal door (1 metre wide x 1.5 metres high) opening into the main enclosure. The doors should be operated from as far outside the enclosure as possible.

The main enclosure: Tigers in rehabilitation may need to be housed for many months after veterinary treatment before they are ready for release. Enclosures that meet their needs – including that of reducing human contact to an absolute minimum – must be provided.

  • A tiger main enclosure should ideally be a large (> 0.5 hectare), natural area with good shade trees, plenty of vegetation providing cover, a varying terrain, a pool for bathing and a natural stream system to ensure a clean water supply. (NB water from any enclosure housing a potentially infectious tiger should not flow into another enclosure). Rocks, dead trees, and other natural features are all of value.
  • Shelter from bad weather must be provided in the enclosure.
  • All external fences of the enclosure should be a solid boundary to ensure that the tiger cannot see humans or other animals (e.g. fence covered with sheeting, vegetation).
  • Vegetation (including trees) should not be cut back unless it causes problems with fences. There is a balance to be struck between the size of enclosure, the level of vegetation and features and the ability to monitor either visually or remotely.
  • Trees next to an enclosure fence provide a potential escape route and should be avoided. Tigers can be discouraged from climbing trees if necessary by bolting on a metal collar with downward angled spikes at about 4-5 metres above the ground.
  • All enclosures (small and large) should have raised wooden shelves for tigers to rest and feed on and hide underneath. For reasons of hygiene these can be replaced after one tiger has been released and before another is given access to the enclosure.
  • To reduce human contact wide visual coverage of the enclosure can be provided by CCTV cameras mounted on the top of the fence line or higher on external poles.
  • The enclosure should have a boxed area that opens into it through which food/ prey animals can be introduced. This boxed area should be able to be opened remotely. Putting prey in must be out of sight of a tiger.
  • Main enclosures should have large double vehicle gates.

Experience at the Alexeevka rehabilitation centre in the Russian Far East strongly suggests that although the simple design given above may be suitable for short term rehabilitation, biosecure units with two adjacent main enclosures of at least 0.5 hectares each provide significant advantages for tiger rehabilitation over longer periods.

  • Introducing live prey into a main enclosure can be done without visual contact with the tiger.
  • Live prey should not be introduced into a small enclosure due to the high risk of injury – nor should they be released directly into an enclosure holding a tiger. In the latter case a quick kill is likely which does not encourage the full range of hunting behaviours from the tiger.
  • Live prey can be given time to become familiar with a main enclosure into which they are released before a tiger is introduced into the same area. This provides a better test of hunting ability.
  • Enclosure management (removing faeces, left over food items, fence maintenance, etc) is far easier without having to move a tiger to a small area.
  • Providing new enrichment items for long-term captives is made easier, and can therefore be done to a higher standard and more frequently.

Schematic diagram showing a bio-secure tiger unit with two large enclosures. Double-headed orange arrows indicate horizontal sliding animal doors or gates, single-headed red arrows indicate human access doors, and the closely paired single-headed black arrows indicate vehicle gates

Fencing for all enclosures (small and large): All enclosures without a roof must have a robust fence to prevent escape. Wild caught tigers will attempt to climb, or jump out of some enclosures, and chew through the wire mesh on others (often damaging their canine teeth).

  • A tiger enclosure fence should be at least 5m high metal mesh, of suitably thick gauge, and if climbable, it should be topped with a minimum 1m overhanging section that leans into the enclosure at an angle of at least 45º. Angled supports added to the vertical fences are necessary for overhangs.
  • 90 degree angle fence corners should be avoided.
  • All fences should have a deep concrete footing and extend at least 0.5m into the ground to avoid digging out or other animals digging in. Additional precautions against this can be provided with a chain link dig barrier extending 2 metres either side of the fence.
  • The integrity of all fencing enclosing areas holding tigers must be checked daily.

Gates and doors into all types of tiger enclosure:

  • From a safety perspective, all tiger areas should ideally be accessed by staff through a double door system, with both inner and outer doors providing good visibility (e.g. in the form of a hatch or window).
  • All doors and gates that open into a tiger area should open inwards to prevent a tiger pushing an unlocked door open.
  • All doors and gates into enclosures should be kept locked (double locks).
  • All animal doors should be horizontal sliding doors and not vertically operated guillotine doors as they are more prone to failure, can injure animals, and can in some instances be lifted by the animals which presents a significant safety hazard. There should also be no gaps in or around these doors or any shared partition fencing where tails and paws can pass through, including those of young cubs. These doors should be operated remotely. Details of construction can be obtained from experienced zoo personnel.
    Regardless of the door style used, the operating mechanism must clearly show the keepers whether the door is in the open or closed position.
  • Squeeze cages are not recommended for tigers at any stage of rehabilitation if the goal is to release to the wild. They are too easily abused, increase the tiger’s stress level, can sometimes result in injury to the animal. They also require close contact with people.

Veterinary facilities:

  • The need to care for or treat orphaned, injured or sick adult tigers is a real possibility. Ideally all care/treatment would be done on site by trained veterinarians. A small clinic fitted with a treatment room and indoor animal holding area for small cubs being hand-reared or critically ill or injured adults that require intensive care is suitable, although much can be done in enclosure dens. Treatment or rearing in dens eliminates the need for chemically immobilisation to move them out of a clinic.

If the area and resources are available a far more expansive design of rehabilitation facility is provided by the NTCA, India:

See: pp 105 – 110 of National Tiger Conservation Authority, (2019). Standard Operating Procedures/Guidelines, Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Change, Government of India, November 2019

In this design two concentric circular plots are used, with the inner circle covering 10 – 15 hectares, and the outer 35 – 40 hectares. The inner area houses the tiger, and the outer are between the two circles houses the prey species.