Puerto Vallarta, Mexico - Keepers at a zoo in the picturesque Mexican city of Puerto Vallarta proudly showed off their new additions - five rare Bengal tiger cubs born on the same day that Hurricane Jova threatened the region.
The arrival of the five Bengals is a rare coup for the endangered tiger which often fails to survive in the wild with hunting for its fur rampant and its natural habitat under threat from development.
The family-run Zoologico de Vallarta, set deep inside virgin jungle in the Pacific coast state of Jalisco, is an ideal environment for the animals. Kept within reach of visitors, the animals receive hands-on care in surroundings similar to their natural habitats.
"This zoo is built and constructed in a jungle. So, there are many people that come and enjoy the jungle not just the animals but also to see their habitat. This is purely a jungle. Also, regarding education, culture and diversification here the visitor cannot leave without touching the animals. The difference with other zoos is that we don't separate animals from visitors, here we have an interaction," said zoo vet, Martin Martinez.
A key motivation for keepers at the zoo is to educate visitors and raise awareness about endangered animals throughout the world. The park's own tiger breeding programme has had great success with more than 20 tigers born since 2010 including a rare white Bengal tiger.
Visitors, many of them tourists from the nearby resorts of Puerto Vallarta, can also buy feed on their way in and get near many of the animals they learn about.
"All of the animals are so well-kept. Maybe at first glance you think oh it's just a local zoo in a Mexican town but all of the animals, we come here every year with our family, the kids just love it. Adults, kids, there are so many big cats every year that are born and you can get so close. They love to feed the animals, they're almost taken care of like pets. They're not kept like animals in cages where you can't get close. Today, for the first time, a hippo opened its mouth to be fed and that was really incredible," said tourist, Laura Acevedo.
The Vallarta Zoo was opened in 2005 with a focus on saving endangered species. Keepers at the site are currently planning a special 20-hectare (49-acre) sanctuary for its jaguars to breed with no help from vets.
"In this zoo we have six species of felines that you find in Mexico, jaguars, pumas, lynxes, ocelots, tigers and jagurundis. We have them and we're breeding them. On top of this we have other breeding programs for native species to this jungle as boas, coati, armadillos, black and green iguanas and we also have exotic species to educate visitors," said Martinez.
The nearly 700 animals at the zoo range from hippos to flamingos with over 100 different species.
Located just south of Vallarta in the jungles of Mismaloya, Zoologico de Vallarta is open daily from 10 am to 6 pm. For more information, call (322) 228-0501, click HERE or visit ZoologicoDeVallarta.com.