The Malayan tiger
The Malayan tiger population has decreased from at least 3,000 to around 500 during the past 50 years.Reuters

A male Malayan tiger has killed a zoo employee, Stacey Konwiser at Palm Beach Zoo, Florida. The 38-year-old was in the large predator's enclosure when the animal lunged at her, and she suffered a "severe bite" wound.

Naki Carter, a zoo spokeswoman said Konwiser was performing basic tasks with the animal and preparing to teach visitors about tigers during a 2pm "Tiger Talk". She added that the large cat was not on display to the public, nor was anyone in danger from it.

"This is the first death at the hands of an animal in the history of the Palm Beach Zoo," she told the Palm Beach Post. "I kind of referred to her as a tiger whisperer. They spoke to each other in a language that only they could understand.

"She was very proficient and efficient handling these animals and something happened. Exactly what occurred remains under investigation."

Konwiser was well known at the zoo for her special talents in handling and working with the four Malayan tigers. Zoo officials issued a code red alert after the attack and the male Malayan tiger received tranquilisers. It was later put down, according to CBS12.

Officials say the zoo will be closed for the next two days and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission will investigate the circumstances surrounding Konwiser's death.

The zoo has four Malayan tigers which are part of a breeding programme. Palm Beach Zoo officials have not said which of their four tigers fatally injured Konwiser. Earlier this year, the zoo keeper posted a photo of a tiger on Facebook and called him "the newest man in my life".

Malayan tigers are an endangered species, according to the World Wildlife Fund and found only on the Malay Peninsula and in the southern tip of Thailand, with around 250-340 living in the wild.

Palm Beach Zoo was founded in 1951, as a petting zoo in Dreher Park. Its first animals were a goat, two ducks, a goose, and a pair of chickens. Palm Beach Zoo now covers 23 acres and houses more than 700 animals.