South China Tigers Are Being Bred and Trained at a South African Reserve for an Eventual Return to the Wild
"The South China Tiger has to jump over a big barrier to be saved. They might not jump. Despite all the effort, they might still go extinct. But we must try to help them."
-- Li Quan
With the South China Tiger either extinct or almost certain to go that route almost any day now, five surviving members that were born in Chinese zoos have been relocated to South Africa in a desperate, eleventh-hour attempt to save the species. At the one-hundred-acre Laohu Valley Reserve outside Philippolis, they are being bred and taught to fend for themselves in the wild.
Once habitats with sufficient game have been established in China, their offspring will be returned and released while they will remain in South Africa and continue to breed.
Between 2003 and 2007, four tiger cubs and one five-year-old adult were relocated to Laohu Valley. Unfortunately, one of the cubs, Hope, developed coronary and respiratory difficulties and died about two years after her arrival.
In November of last year a tigress named Cathay, who had earlier mated with a tiger dubbed TigerWoods (sic), gave birth to a still unnamed cub. (See photo above.) This marked the first time that a South China Tiger, long thought to be the stem species of all tigers, had been born outside its native land.
As things now stand, once two pairs of unrelated cubs are bred and reared at Laohu Valley they will be returned to China and released into reserves planned for Jiangxi and Human provinces. Before that can happen, however, authorities in China must create reserves, stock them with live game, and relocate the residents now living in those areas.
Moreover, the project will not come to an end with the reintroduction of the cats to the wild. Au contraire, the Chinese authorities will have to be vigilant in protecting them from individuals intent upon doing them malice aforethought and the breeding and training program in South Africa will have to continue indefinitely.
Despite the fact that officials in China are dragging their feet, the architect of this experimental project, Li Quan of Save China's Tigers, is still optimistic. "The birth of the cubs will create pressure on the relevant authorities to do something about it (the reserves)," she told the Los Angeles Times on March 7th. (See "Fighting for Chinese Tigers, and the Last Word.")
Even if conservationists in China do follow through on their end of the deal, the obstacles confronting the cats are formidable. First of all, there are difficulties in getting animals born in captivity to breed whether that be in a zoo or a reserve. For instance, a tiger named Three-Twenty-Seven, who arrived at Laohu Valley last September after having spent the first five-years of his life in a zoo, has yet to mate.
There are also nurturing issues. For example, when Cathay gave birth she failed not only to lick dry her male offspring but also to warm him. This necessitated the cub being taken from her and bottle-fed by attendants. (See photo below.) He will, however, be returned to the reserve once he reaches the age of four-months.
It is not clear whether tigresses born in captivity have lost the nurturing instinct or if Cathay is an anomaly. Should the former be the case, this project is most likely doomed to be a colossal failure. It is encouraging nonetheless that she did not attempt to harm the cub in any way.
Teaching animals born and reared in captivity to hunt is another daunting obstacle that somehow must be overcome. Anyone familiar with George and Joy Adamson's attempt to reintroduce the lioness Elsa to the wild can readily identify with the difficulties involved in this undertaking. (See Cat Defender post of October 10, 2005 entitled "Animals Start Returning to 'Born Free' Nature Reserve in Kenya as Poachers and Bandits Are Driven Out.")
Not only must the tigers be weaned off of handouts, but more importantly they need to first overcome their fear of the outside world. Three-Twenty-Seven was even terrified of the grass blowing in the breeze when he was first turned loose at Laohu Valley.
Although some people may laugh, that is quite understandable considering the constraints that captive animals are forced to endure. Their tiny cells, keepers, and meager food rations are pretty much all that they know of the world. In a sense, they are far worse off than the hoi polloi that Plato describes in The Republic as living in a cave.
Consequently, being set free even at a specially designed reserve like Laohu Valley can be extremely traumatic for the tigers. Moreover, it highlights the difficulties involved in releasing these animals in China.
In nature, tigers and all other animals are taught to hunt by their parents whereas those born in captivity must be taught their predation skills by humans. Not surprisingly, there have been some notable setbacks along the way. Par exemple, Hope was bitten by a baboon while another tigress known as Madonna became dehydrated while hunting.
"There's no exact recipe. They don't have the mother to teach them to pluck the feathers off a guinea fowl or break open a springbok," former South African game warden Peter Openshaw, who is now working for Li, told the velvet coffin in the article cited supra. "They have to learn by trial and error. The first couple of kills have to be quite easy. Then you make the process more difficult."
The flat largely barren plains of South Africa also create obstacles of their own. With limited cover, the cats must learn to stalk and then ambush their prey. Nevertheless, the skills that they now are learning should stand them in good stead once they are released into China's mountainous regions.
It is unclear, however, if the cats will be able to adapt to the cold and snow of China after having spent their entire lives in either zoos or warm South Africa. If either their fur fails to grow or their immune systems are unable to adjust to the elements and new diseases the tigers are not going to survive for very long.
It therefore would have been more appropriate to have conducted this experiment in China had either a suitable habitat or the expertise been available. Besides, transporting the animals between China and South Africa is in itself stressful for them.
Due to the unorthodox nature of the project, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) has been highly critical of it from the start. That is to be expected, however, from an organization that rarely involves itself in anything other than either tagging animals or sucking up to capitalists and hunters. (See Cat Defender post of May 4, 2006 entitled "Scientific Community's Use of High-Tech Surveillance Is Aimed at Subjugating, Not Saving, the Animals.")
Judy Mills of Save the Tiger Fund also has repeatedly hurled virulent salvos in Li's direction that have questioned both her abilities and motivations. Believing as she does that all resources and expertise should be concentrated on saving Amur, Bengal, and Indochinese tigers, she accordingly has written off the South China Tiger as a lost cause.
Even Openshaw has his reservations about the viability of the project. "You just have to persevere and put your head down and keep on going. At least we're doing something. I'd rather say, 'Well, we didn't save the animals from extinction, but gee, we gave it our best shot'," he confessed to the Times.
Li, who has already poured more than twelve-million of her own moola into this project, is undaunted by either the criticism or obstacles. "The South China Tiger has to jump over a big barrier to be saved. They might not jump. Despite all the effort, they might still go extinct. But we must try to help them," she said.
To say that the tigers are in need of help is a gross understatement; what they actually need is nothing short of a miracle! For instance, researchers at the University of Exeter recently concluded that tigers and other large carnivores reintroduced to the wild only have a thirty-three per cent chance of survival.
Predation by hunters and motorists claims the lives of fifty per cent of them while the remainder succumb to hunger and disease. Some of them also fail to mate and therefore do not contribute anything toward reestablishing their respective species. Moreover, their lack of fear of humans is a hard obstacle for captive-bred animals to overcome.
"We have suspected for some time that captive-born animals fared less well than wild animals. But here it is finally quantified, and the extent of the problem is critical," Kristen Jule, lead author of the study, told National Geographic on January 23rd. (See "Most Captive-Born Predators Die if Released.")
The precipitate decline of South China Tigers was one of the great crimes of the twentieth century. Fifty years ago, there were at least four-thousand of them but Mao fiendishly branded them, along with leopards and wolves, as pests which led to their wholesale slaughter.
The animals also have been hunted for their lucrative pelts and various body parts, the latter of which are a staple of traditional Chinese medicine. Development has additionally diminished their habitat and food supply.
Although there are between sixty and seventy of the tigers living in zoos in China, there has not been a confirmed sighting of any of them in the wild in about thirty years. Even the most optimistic experts estimate that there could be no more than twenty-five to thirty of them remaining, which is far too few in order to make the species genetically viable.
Hope was briefly rekindled last autumn when fifty-two-year-old farmer Zhou Zhenglong of Wencai in Shaanxi Province produced a photograph that he claimed to have taken of one of the cats near his home. (See Cat Defender post of November 2, 2007 entitled "For the First Time in Three Decades, Rare South China Tiger Is Confirmed to Be Alive in the Wild.")
It now appears that Zhou forged the photograph on a computer and that local officials conspired with him in perpetrating an elaborate hoax in order to increase tourism in the area. (See photo above.) Zhou was even publicly hailed as a hero and rewarded with $2,666 for the photograph.
Last month, the Shaanxi Forestry Department sent a cryptic letter to Xinhua admitting its error. "We curtly released the discovery of the South China Tiger without substantial proof, which reflects our blundering manner and lax discipline," it read. (See Reuters, February 5, 2008, "China Officials Say Sorry in 'Paper Tiger' Saga.")
If the South China Tiger becomes extinct in the wild it will join its Balinese, Caspian, and Javanese cousins who have preceded it into the dustbin of history. That would leave only Amurs, Bengals, Sumatrans, Indochinese, and Malayan tigers and the long-term outlook for them is not particularly promising.
Photos: Robyn Dixon of the Los Angeles Times (tiger cub) and Save China's Tigers (Zhou's tiger).