Endangered Tiger at Colo. Zoo Dies After Undergoing Artificial Insemination Procedure: 'A Life Ended Too Soon'

The Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado is mourning the loss of Savelii, a 9-year-old Amur tiger who recently underwent an artificial insemination procedure as a part of a survival plan to help save her endangered subspecies.

Savelii died on Thursday afternoon due to complications in her recovery from the procedure, according to an open letter titled "A Life Ended Too Soon vs. The Consequences of Inaction" from Bob Chastain, the president and CEO of Cheyenne Mountain Zoo.

"Prior to our plan for AI, we had been working for several months to get our male, Chewy, and Savelii into a safe, natural breeding situation," he explained. "When those natural breeding introduction efforts failed, we decided on artificial insemination as the safest way to safeguard this amazing species of Amur tiger from extinction."

"Due to the global importance of this procedure, seven veterinarians were on hand for the procedure, as well as reproductive biologists, and representatives from three AZA-accredited zoos and one university," Chastain said. "It was an important step forward for a species near the brink of extinction – it was requested and approved by the AZA Tiger Species Survival Plan and was funded in part by a federal grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Much hope hinged on the outcome of this procedure."

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Savelii was placed under anesthesia for an laparoscopy and was stable throughout the procedure, a spokesperson for the zoo tells PEOPLE.

However, when Savelii was being transported back to her den, her breathing became shallow and animal caretakers could not stabilize her.

A necropsy was performed, but there were no obvious causes of death, according to the spokesperson.

Savelii arrived at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in November 2019. Plans to have her undergo artificial insemination were announced in February.

Amur tigers such as Savelii are considered endangered on the IUCN Red List.

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According to the Chastain, there are only 107 Amur tigers living in Association of Zoos and Aquariums facilities across North America and about 500 in the wild.

"The loss of individual animals, especially one as spunky and playful as Savelii, is deeply sad," Chastain wrote in his letter. "Savelii will be missed immensely. But our sadness is not only for the loss of a beautiful individual, but also sadness for the loss suffered for the Amur tiger species as a whole."

"The loss of Savelii is a tragedy for our staff, for her keepers, and for our community. However, the tragedy goes far beyond that. As you read this, there are thought to be only about 500 Amur tigers left in the wild. That subspecies is literally disappearing, and yet the death of Savelii may get more attention than that crisis. That is why our work in educating people is so important, and we need to continue to take action."

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