Photos that went viral of tubby Siberian tigers at a Chinese zoo have sparked concern among animal welfare organisations after state media said it was “natural” for the animals to pile on the weight for winter. Images of a group of the obese-looking Siberian tigers lolling around in the state-run Siberian Tiger Park in Harbin, Heilongjiang province, went viral online recently with many social media users joking that the caged cats had, like them, been too well fed over the Lunar New Year holiday. The set of photos were first posted by the local tourism department on its official Weibo account on January 26. After some internet users raised concerns about the animals’ health, the official People’s Daily newspaper carried an article reassuring readers that the fat tigers were normal. Endangered Siberian tiger swims over to China “It is in fact the nature of these animals to devour more in order to adapt the acute weather during the winter in Harbin, which could be as low as minus 20 to 30 degrees Celsius,” the report said, adding that the big cats would shed the weight in the summer. Animal welfare organisations, however, were sceptical of the state-run newspaper’s justification. Karina O’Carroll, Animals Asia Foundation’s animal welfare education manager, said she had never seen wild tigers as fat as the ones at the Chinese zoo. “They are definitely overweight. It definitely constitutes a welfare concern for these animals,” O’Carroll said, adding that tigers this obese were prone to developing cardiovascular or joint issues. Wild tigers were very capable of controlling their weight as obesity would inconvenience them when they hunt for food, according to the animal expert. Chinese man caught with dead Siberian tiger in car The Siberian tigers’ obesity could be due to either medical or dietary reasons but it was more likely the latter, O’Carroll said. “The zoo will have to control the tigers’ diet and regulate their exercise schedule in the long run,” she said. Will Travers, president of the Britain-based international wildlife charity Born Free Association, was also quoted by British newspaper Metro as saying: “In my view, this is not funny or cute. These animals are ill.” The tiger’s level of obesity indicated a wholly inappropriate and unnatural diet, woefully inadequate opportunities for natural behaviour and exercise, and the constants of captivity,” Travers said. Internet users, many of them from outside China, also continued to express their concerns. One Twitter user wrote: “In all seriousness, a tiger this fat needs help or its life will be short.” Another wrote, “It’s a balloon tiger ... How could you let a tiger get this fat?” A Weibo user posted: “This is not good for [the tigers’] health. Many functions of their body would rapidly deteriorate.” Chinese officials fined for keeping tigers as pets after one leapt to death from 11-storey building At 144 hectares, the Siberian Tiger Park is said to be the world’s largest nature park for the rare animals that are classified as endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. The biggest of the big cats, the Siberian, or Amur, subspecies once roamed throughout Korea, northeast China, the Russian Far East and eastern Mongolia. But the wild population today has been reduced in Russia’s Primorye province next to North Korea and Heilongjiang. The Heilongjiang park recently claimed major success in stabilising the Siberian tiger population through intense conservation efforts, producing more than 90 cubs last year.