No one at the National Zoo was ready to say goodbye, but for the Sumatran tiger lovingly called Rokan, it was time.
Rokan was very old and too sick to go on, so the zoo’s veterinarians, after much thoughtful consideration, euthanized him.
But Rokan forever left his paw print on the hearts and minds of the staff and the thousands of visitors who came to see him, and he helped ensure that Sumatran tigers will perhaps forever inhabit the planet.
You see Rokan was 20 years old. That is five years more than the life expectancy for Sumatran tigers in the wild. And since Sumatran tigers are critically endangered, Rokan’s 10 surviving cubs are a significant contribution to the Sumatran Tiger Species Survival Plan.
You can still go to see one of his young offspring. Four-year-old Guntur lives at the National Zoo.
Rokan started having problems walking about a year-and-a-half ago. He got better for a while with medication, but finally his lameness became severe. During a physical examination, vets found he had a neuromuscular disorder caused by spinal cord disease. They did everything they could to make him comfortable, but in the end, nothing helped.
“We knew he would get to the point when his quality of life was no longer medically manageable or acceptable,” said National Zoo veterinarian Katherine Hope.
And that day came Wednesday.
Rokan, who was named after the Rokan River in Sumatra, was born at the San Antonio Zoo in 1990 and came to live in Washington in 1997. He was different from others of his species. Most tigers are solitary in the wild, but Rokan was devoted to the zoo’s elderly female tiger, Soyono. Rokan and Soyono had three litters and he had a fourth litter with another one of his tiger mates.
He had a gentle nature. Tiger keeper Marie Magnuson who bonded with Rokan over 11 years said, “He was very calm. We could run a wet vac in the next enclosure and he’d sleep right through it. Nothing seemed to upset him, except not knowing where Soyono was.”
He was also unusual for a male Sumatran tiger in that he had a muscular build. Most Sumatrans are sleek and not as bulky as Rokan.
Rokan did right by his keepers, zoo enthusiasts and the planet by fathering seven male cubs and three females. This should greatly help the Sumatran population decimated by habitat loss, poaching and illegal trading.
Save the Tiger Fund estimates there are only about 4,000 wild tigers living in Asia. Their environments vary from the tropical rainforests of Sumatra and Indochina to the temperate oak forests of the Amur River Valley in eastern Russia.
The Smithsonian Institution has teamed up with the World Bank Group, National Geographic and Global Environment Fund to develop the Global Tiger Initiative. The goal is to save tigers from extinction and double the number of wild tigers by 2022.
Rokan did his part from his habitat at the National Zoo -- and he will be remembered.