Tierpark Animal News

First peek into the birthing cave

Polar bear cub and mother are doing well, grandma Aika has died.

Twenty days after the birth of the polar bear cubs, the zoo keepers dared to take a first peek into the birthing cave. Experienced polar bear keeper Detlef Balkow (61) carefully put the key into the lock of the polar bear den, while Barbara Lächert (54) kept a close eye on the surveillance monitor. As Tonja, the polar bear mother seemed quite unperturbed by the familiar noises at the door and lay there quite calmly, Barbara signaled to Detlef to go inside. Detlef checked both polar bear dens and went to give carrots and apples to both Tonja and Aika (36), the polar bear who lives in the neighbouring den.

The good news is that polar bear mum Tonja and her cub are doing very well! But at the same time, Detlef made a sad discovery. Aika, the oldest female polar bear in the world, has died. She had already been very lethargic since early autumn and had withdrawn into her den together with Tonja. As she had spent much of the past few weeks sleeping and hardly moving at all the zoo keepers were not too concerned when Aika remained in the same position for a long period of time. The surveillance monitor showed that Aika moved for the last time on Monday but the exact time of her death will not be known until the examination by the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (IZW).

“We are all very, very sad,” said curator Dr Florian Sicks. “But after all, Aika was the oldest female polar bear in the world and it was inevitable that this day would come.” Back in 2011, Aika already went through a very lethargic phase and the zoo keepers were afraid she might be dying soon, but then the old lady surprised them by making a remarkable recovery.

Zoo and Tierpark Director Dr Andreas Knieriem referred to the fact that life and death are a part of the natural cycle of life – also in a zoo: “We would have loved to celebrate her 36th birthday, but anything above 30 is a very respectable age for bears. Perhaps Aika sensed the new life that was growing beside her and felt it was her time to go.”

“Tonja was very calm and even ate some of the carrots,” said Detlef Balkow about his first visit to Tonja, and added: “I could see the polar bear cub: it’s snow white and about the size of a rabbit. It complained bitterly when Tonja came and greeted me briefly at the grating and it had to do without mummy’s lovely warm fur for a moment.” Detlef has known Tonja for five years and has experienced seven litters of polar bear cubs during his 45 years on the job.
Following the successful first visit to the polar bear den, the zoo keepers now plan to make regular feeding visits there. In the next few days they will be taking a camera along too so that we can all enjoy looking at the cute pictures of the polar bears – but only if polar bear mum Tonja allows it, of course.

Polar bear Tonja gave birth to twins at Tierpark Berlin on Thursday 3 November. These are the first polar bear cubs to be born at Tierpark Berlin in 22 years. The twins’ parents are the now six-year-old Tonja and four-year-old Wolodja. One week later, only one cub could be seen on the surveillance camera so it must be assumed that only one of the cubs survived.