Story: Gautam Viswanathan
Life hasn’t quite been the same for Ahmed Al Balushi over the last couple of weeks. He hasn’t been able to get enough sleep, his routine has been turned upside down, and he’s had to make many sacrifices since then. To him, though, they’ve been totally worth it.
On June 17, Oman’s first ever tiger cubs were born at Al Noman Zoo in Barka, which is owned by Ahmed, and is just a 30 to 45-minute drive from Muscat, depending on where in the capital you live.
The little orange-and-white balls of fur were born to parents Luna and Pablo, the two adult tigers at Al Noman, but are now being reared by Ahmed, who has had to feed them milk every three hours, after they were seemingly rejected by their mum.
The adorable cubs are yet to open their eyes – that will still take about a couple more weeks – but for now, there is no dearth of love from the doting Ahmed and his family. The tiny tigers make sure there is no lack of it: the heart-melting baby roars they let out the moment he puts them down are the sweetest calls for attention ever heard from a big cat … probably.
“I am always with them,” says Ahmed, in an exclusive interview. “I have not slept at night, because I have to feed them every three hours. I am currently keeping them separate from their parents, because I felt their mother didn’t want them. Maybe this was because it is, at the moment, really hot in their cage, so I took it upon myself to raise these cubs.
Speaking loudly to make himself heard over the continual roars of the cubs, he adds, “I first kept the babies with their mother, because I wanted to see if she would take to them. But I then saw her hold them by her mouth and drop them in a pool of water. I waited for 20 minutes for her to take them out, but she never came back for them. I was afraid they would die, because the water in their enclosure is quite deep.”
Although the baby tigers are yet to see the wider world, their current lack of sight hasn’t stopped them from getting to know their surroundings. Keen on understanding where they are, they walk unsteadily on their little legs, their tiny paws taking one tentative step forward at a time. Ahmed is always there to ensure the cubs – who are just about the size of an adult cat – don’t accidentally bump into a wall, or to pick them up after they fall down because their wobbly feet are yet to fully support them.
There are only two times throughout the day the cubs aren’t continually roaring: the first is when Ahmed lovingly feeds them by hand, and the second is immediately after, when the little ones drop off to sleep. Despite being with them almost constantly, they do seem a bit confused when he picks them up, particularly when their furry bellies are exposed, and cautiously flail their paws about to make sure they’re still safe.
Unlike their parents, who’re fed fresh meat every day and have their water changed by two of Ahmed’s staff and whose care is overseen by his own son, the tiny tigers – both of them are females – are given milk in a feeding bottle. Much like it does in humans, the effect of the bottle on these babies is also instantaneous: their roars stop immediately, as they happily suck down the contents within. It’s gone in a matter of seconds, but that doesn’t stop him from preparing the next batch of milk while the cubs have a snooze.
“I was afraid something would happen to them if they were left alone in the cage,” said Ahmed, who is no stranger to multitasking, and continues to feed one of the cubs while talking to us. “I rang up a doctor outside of Oman, and he told me to keep the tiger cubs in a cool area with a maximum temperature of between 25 and 27 degrees.”
The first cub having finished her lunch – it is, at this time, afternoon – it is now time for Ahmed to feed her equally cute sister. “I take care of the tigers myself. Even when I am home, I operate according to their schedule. I know when they have to be fed, when they need to be given a shower, and when they must be taken to the toilet. The cubs need to be massaged as well.”
The care Ahmed shows the cubs is but an extension of his love for animals that prompted him to open Al Noman Zoo about 10 years ago. The zoo at present has about 150 different species of birds and animals, including alligators, giraffes, lions, horses, camels, ostriches and monkeys.
Running a zoo of this size is far from an easy task for him, despite his fondness for our four-legged friends: it costs, on average, about OMR 15,000 a month for Ahmed to feed and look after his animals, as well as pay his staff. A significant portion of the funding for his zoo comes from visitors who buy tickets to get in.
The arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, means that like nearly all entertainment venues open to the public, his zoo has also been closed, depriving him of the much-needed income he needs to keep Al Noman running. Delays caused in shipping and transport of goods, because of the spread of the disease, meant the food he needed to feed his animals wasn’t available in the shops.
Deciding to cut his losses before he was forced to shell out more money to keep the zoo running, Ahmed was on the verge of selling his beloved zoo, before these two tigers came into his life, renewing in him a most wonderful feeling: hope. Ahmed explains to us how the little felines brought back to him the determination to keep his pet project going, pausing only to kiss their furry heads, something he does a few dozens of times a day.
“When the cubs were first born, I forgot all my problems, because I have faced issues with the zoo for the last four months,” he admitted. “I was under tremendous pressure because my zoo isn’t getting any business at the moment. Some of my animals have died because the food they need isn’t available in the market, so I decided to sell my zoo before things got worse. I had had enough of the zoo, but when these two babies came into my life, all that changed and I became so, so happy
Ahmed added, as he lovingly cradled the cubs: “I hope these tigers become close to me, so that I can train them. I would like for the public – especially children – to be able to interact with them. It will be difficult, but I will definitely try to train them, because this is the first time something like this has happened in Oman. Of course, I sometimes have challenges with money, trouble with food sometimes, but this is my passion.
“When someone is following their passion, they are not afraid of the challenges that come their way.” – [email protected]