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.
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.
A trip to Africa on safari persuaded her to get involved with conservation. At the same time, she was becoming increasingly concerned about the South China Tiger – the near-extinct, cultural king of her home country. Eventually, she says, she realized that China could help this endangered cat by developing what she saw as a South African model of conservation: economically viable, well-protected reserves that bring in significant tourist dollars.
Her husband gave $8 million to her project, and both have wooed investors to their Chinese ecotourism ventures. But before the South China Tiger can leave the zoo and flourish in the tourist-attracting wild, it needs to learn how to hunt.
This is where South Africa's Laohu Valley Reserve comes in.
The reserve is a six-hour drive from Johannesburg, in the rolling, remote farming center of South Africa. It was once a collection of 17 sheep farms, but since Quan and Mr. Bray bought the property, nature has slowly taken over – endemic shrubs and grasses are breaking into overgrazed pastures. Blesbok and springbok – two southern African antelopes – roam through most of the 81,500 acres.
Here, Openshaw and others are trying to develop the hunting skills of three South China tigers on loan from the Chinese government – Cathay, Madonna, and TigerWoods. (TigerWoods is male, the others are female.) A fourth tiger, Hope, died at Laohu last year. If the plan succeeds, it is expected that the tigers will pass on hunting skills to their offspring, in the normal way of wild cats.
Openshaw says he was at first wary of the project, sharing concerns about raising a foreign species on South African soil. But when he realized Quan was sincere in her desire to return the tigers to China, he gladly joined the cutting-edge "rewilding" project.
"We don't train them to hunt – we facilitate the hunting," says Openshaw, who worked with one of South Africa's top provincial wildlife divisions for 15 years. "They can successfully hunt and kill already. But they need a lot more fine tuning."
For instance, the tigers have all learned that antelope are dinner. But how to catch them? At first, the cats would run straight at the herd, and would tire quickly, chasing the animals. Soon, they learned to sneak up on the antelopes, using the grass for cover.
Much of the training is trial by error, he says. The tigers started off hunting in a small, 22-acre enclosure. Now they will hunt in a large, 99-acre space. Eventually they will move into an even larger section of the reserve. Openshaw has to find the right balance between weaning the tigers from human dependency and making sure that they stay healthy.
As he drives through the enclosure, the three tigers follow. The South China tiger is the leanest of the tiger species, but the males still grow close to 400 pounds. Their faces are beautifully lined with white, black, and orange.
Openshaw's wife, Ronel, who also works on the project, holds a fire extinguisher – the big cat version of the kitchen spritzer. Sometimes Cathay wants to play with the tires, she explains.
The three tigers have distinct personalities, they say. TigerWoods is a naughty schoolboy; Madonna is surprisingly brave. Cathay, the oldest, has a bit of a maternal streak. But they try not to create too much of a bond with the cats. After all, the eventual goal is to make them – or at least their descendants – wary of humans. So when the tigers are eating, the humans back away.
"We're not trying to save these three tigers," Ms. Openshaw explains. "We're trying to save the South China Tiger as a whole."