ONE of Ireland's most popular tourist attractions is set for a €6m expansion which will see it finally add 'big cats' to its collection of animals, which already includes lemurs, giraffes and meerkats.
Fota Wildlife Park will launch work on its ambitious Asian Sanctuary in 2013 which will see the award-winning Cork facility become home to tigers, lions and even rhino.
Planning permission has been submitted for the 25-acre Asian-themed wildlife reserve and Fota expects to get its first two Sumatran tigers, the stars of the new project, by September.
The two cats, a breeding pair, will arrive from zoos in France and Germany.
Fota celebrates its 30th anniversary in 2013 and hopes that the expansion will see it add almost 40pc to its wildlife reserve area.
Director Sean McKeown said the park was ready to take its next step which would follow on from the opening of a €700,000 conservation complex complete with butterfly house.
The centrepiece for the new Asian project will be the Sumatran tiger breeding programme. But the expansion will also see the east Cork facility secure stocks of Indian rhino, Asian lions and potentially Indian elephants.
Fota is a top breeding centre for endangered species, with its cheetah programme ranked as one of the most successful in the world.
The park is Cork's number one tourist attraction and achieved almost 400,000 visitors in 2012.
It is hoped that, once funding is cleared, the new Asian Sanctuary will be fully open for the 2015 season.
"What we are trying to do is achieve our aim of becoming an important wildlife education and conservation body and our reputation is growing internationally," Mr McKeown said.
Concerns for the Sumatran tiger's survival have mounted over the past 25 years, with estimated numbers plummeting from 500 in 1998 to just 300 left in the wild by 2009.
Fota hopes to help breed Sumatran tigers and then, working with the Indonesian government, reintroduce them to protected habitats in Sumatra.