With fewer than 400 Sumatran tigers left in the world, every captive birth is a celebrated one ... but successfully breeding these critically endangered animals can be tricky business. With the help of behind-the-scenes cameras, staff at Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Washington are keeping a watchful eye as three tiny cubs, born Wednesday, begin to bond with their mother 'Jaya'. 

Jaya nurses her three cubs. Image:Point Defiance Zoo

"It will be several days before veterinarians are able to further assess the health of the cubs and perhaps learn their genders," says reproductive biologist and the zoo's general curator Dr Karen Goodrowe Beck, adding that initial bonding time without disruption is crucial for tigers. "Zoo staff will monitor mother and cubs around the clock to ensure that she is caring for them."

The trio's birth brings the number of captive Sumatran tigers in North America to just 79, but this small group means a great deal to conservation – they represent 20 percent of Sumatran tigers left on the planet! On their native island of Sumatra, rampant poaching and habitat loss has pushed tiger populations to the brink, but Goodrowe Beck and the team at Point Defiance are determined to help pull them back.

The zoo not only provides support to anti-poaching efforts in Sumatra, but also participates in the Species Survival Plan for Sumatran tigers, which has raised over $150,000 since 2012 to help protect wild populations.

In the past century, four of nine tiger subspecies have gone extinct in their natural habitats, but with the help of well-managed breeding programs like this, we hope to see a different fate for Sumatran tigers.

The new family will stay in a behind-the-scenes den until the cubs are given a clean bill of health, but their hearty appetites have the keepers feeling optimistic!

 Top header image: Brian Mckay, Flickr