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China tigers burn bright in Africa

Only 10 wild tigers exist in China. But there's a new comeback plan: Teach zoo tigers to hunt in South Africa.

By / August 23, 2006



LAOHU VALLEY RESERVE, SOUTH AFRICA

When the tiger named Cathay saw her first dead antelope, she thought "toy" instead of "dinner." She didn't pounce or bite or go for the jugular; instead she batted and licked and wrestled, a typical playful cat.

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Not that you could blame her. In her past of zoos and cages, meals had always come precut.

"It took her a day to actually bite into the meat," recalls Peter Openshaw, who is working to improve Cathay's hunting instincts – part of an ambitious and controversial tiger rehabilitation project here. "That was a first step."

To demonstrate Cathay's progress over the past two years, Mr. Openshaw blows a whistle from a small clearing where his crew has dropped three springbok carcasses. Within seconds, Cathay and two other tigers come running across the blond South African grasslands. They pounce immediately, seizing the 60-pound antelopes by their necks and dragging them to appropriate snacking spots. We can hear them munching.

"We feed them every four or five days," Openshaw says. "We try to simulate what would happen in the wild."

Tigers, however, do not exist in South Africa's "wild." They barely even exist in China's. And this is why the Save China's Tigers project, based in this remote patch of central South Africa, has become a source of hope among some conservationists, as well as a lightning rod for criticism.

The project is the brainchild of Li Quan, a Chinese-born former fashion executive. She wants to breed endangered South China Tigers in South Africa, where there is available land and wildlife expertise, and also to teach the cats to hunt – a skill they have lost after generations in zoos. Meanwhile, she says, she is working with investors and the Chinese government to create new nature reserves in China's Jiangxi and Hunan provinces. As early as three years from now, she says, she would like to return at least one South African-born, wild-ready tiger to one of these newly protected reserves; in 15 years, all of the tigers will go back to China.

It is an ambitious plan. But as few as 10 South China Tigers now remain in nature; there are 60 in captivity at Chinese zoos.

"But we're at the end of the road with these animals," Ms. Quan says. "We can't simply say, 'Let's write them off.' We have the responsibility to try something."

Some large conservation organizations, such as the World Conservation Union and the World Wildlife Federation, have criticized Quan for overreaching. Some in the field have even accused her of "playing" conservationist, of using the tigers as a self-indulgent hobby.

"To me, it's just a gimmick," says Brian Jones, game warden at South Africa's Moholoholo Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre. "It might work to breed them here, but that doesn't prove that it's successful."

Quan shakes her head at this sort of criticism, absently fingering her cat necklace. (She also wears paw-print glasses, a tiger jacket, and a purse with a dangling cheetah charm.) The big conservation organizations simply feel threatened by her, she says; Everyone wants scarce donor money. She says the attacks have only convinced her that she is filling a much-needed void.

In some ways, Quan is an unlikely conservationist. Born in Beijing and a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, she was the licensing director for Gucci International until the late 1990s. She has always been an animal lover, she says, and when she quit her job to move to London with her husband, Wall Street financier Stuart Bray, she found herself with extra time and extra mental energy.

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