Dec 12, 2013 05:54 PM

Project to Save South China Tigers in South Africa Lost in Wilderness

(South Africa) – The Free State Province of South Africa lies in the heartland of the country. About 200 kilometers from Bloemfontein, the provincial capital and South Africa's judicial capital, on a rolling flat plain sits the Laohu Valley Reserve.

The reserve got its name from the South China tiger, "laohu" being the name for "tiger" in Chinese. In September 2003, two South China tigers were sent to the reserve from a Chinese zoo. What began as an effort to save the species from the brink of extinction evolved into a "rewilding" training project, the goal of which is to release the big cats back into their natural habitat.

There are 15 South China tigers now living in Laohu Valley. Tiger supervisor Vivienne McKenzie said that nine of them are already capable hunters.

"All the data we collected in Laohu Valley indicates that, if the tigers can hunt here, they can hunt in China." University of Pretoria post-doc fellow Maria Fàbregas explains that, though landscape differs in two countries,the vast plains and valleys in Laohu Valley actually provides less cover up for the tigers than the forest landscape in southern China, making it a more difficult place for hunting .

The South China tiger is exclusive to China and believed to be extinct in the wild. There are only about 100 in the world outside of Laohu Valley, all of which live in Chinese zoos.

Ten years ago, China's State Forestry Administration (SFA) partnered with environmental protection organizations, conservationists and wildlife specialists to propose a plan to send the tigers to South Africa. The goal of the plan is to release the tigers back into wild, and to restore the South China's wild tiger population.

The original plan was to get those tigers trained in South Africa to come back China in 2008, but the SFA has been unable to find a place to free the rewilded tigers. They have now been abroad five years longer than planned.

Now the financial backer and operator of Laohu Valley may face more challenges. Quan Li, a former fashion executive for Gucci and founder of Save China’s Tigers, has filed for divorce from her husband, the foundation's financial backer. The divorce is likely to put financial stress on the trust.

It may be time for the tigers to come home, but where in a badly deforested China can they go?

Cathay and Tiger Woods

The South China tiger is one of China's oldest breeds of tiger, and in the past was prolific. Official statistics indicate that as of 1949, there were still 4,000 of them in the wild. However, 50 to 60 years ago the tiger was declared a "pest" by officials, opening it up to legal hunting. Since then, over 3,000 were killed.

In the past 20 years, not a single South China tiger has been seen in the wild. Academics agree that the breed is now extinct in the wild. In 2007, a resident of Zhenping County, in the northwestern province of Shaanxi Province, claimed to have photographed a wild South China tiger, but that was later proven to be a hoax.

In 2009, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature named the South China tiger the world's most endangered tiger subspecies. All of the animals alive today are the zoo-bred progeny of six wild cats caught in the wild in the 1950s and 60s.

The idea to send the tigers to South Africa originated with Quan, a native of Beijing. In 1999, she spent time observing the successes of wildlife reserves and ecological tourism in Africa. A year later, Li and her husband, Stuart Bray, founded the Save China's Tigers Foundation in Britain. The foundation was later registered in the United States and Hong Kong as well.

In May 2002, the foundation purchased 30,000 hectares of land in South Africa as a base for rewilding South China tigers. Later, the Chinese Tigers South African Trust was established to serve as the executive organization for the rewilding project and to raise funds.

Later in 2002, representatives of the foundation, trust and the SFA's National Wildlife Research and Development Center met in Beijing to sign an agreement aimed at breeding the species and reintroducing it into the wild. That formally kicked off the project in South Africa.

Specialists from South Africa, the United States, Japan, Brazil and many other nations lent great support to the project. In 2003, an executive team comprised of top South African wild animal specialists and conservationists began planning the layout of Laohu Valley and methods for rewilding the tigers.

In September 2003, two tiger cubs – Cathay and Hope – arrived in South Africa, making them the first South China tigers on the African continent. A year later cubs named Tiger Woods and Madonna were flown to the reserve. Then in 2007 an adult tiger – "No. 327" – was sent from a zoo in Suzhou, in the eastern province of Jiangsu, to Laohu Valley to start the breeding program.

Raising a tiger is hard, but teaching it to live in the wild is even harder. Over the next decade, more tigers were bred from the first arrivals. But over that time No. 327 died in a fight and the tiger named Hope also died. Later, three more cubs died.

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