Jonathan Clayton in Laohu Valley Reserve
Even tigers hesitate before leaping into the unknown.
That was the only explanation offered yesterday for a huge letdown in performance by a majestic male named Stud 327.
No-one was more disappointed than the spurned female – a South China tigress by the name of Cathay, who has waited four years for the opportunity to save one of the world’s most threatened species from extinction.
She bounded towards her prospective mate, cuffed his legs playfully, and then lay submissively on the ground whining – all to no avail. Her advances were met by angry roars and grunts as her panic-stricken beau tried in vain to reenter his cage.
“I think it has all been a bit too much for him . . . this whole thing is going to take time,” said Peter Openshaw, the manager of the Laohu Valley Reserve in South Africa where one of the most daring – and controversial – experiments in conservation is under way.
In addition to the breeding programme, the tigers are being taught to hunt wild animals – skills that the conservationists hope will be passed on to any cubs before they can be released into the wild in China.
Li Quan, the architect of the experiment, was less forgiving of the stud’s performance. “Maybe he’s a wimp,” the glamorous former fashion executive quipped. “I hope he gets his act together.”
With an understanding transcending species, Mr Openshaw generously explained that Stud 327 – named after his registration number in the International Zoological Association’s Studbook Registry – has had his life turned upside down in the past two months.
Born in captivity, he was flown at the end of last April from Suzhou Zoo in China to Africa and placed in a large enclosure in full view of several female tigers who stalk and catch their own prey in large fenced-in enclosures.
Until that point he had more contact with humans than fellow tigers, let alone rampant females whose return to the wild has seen them throw off the inhibitions of zoo life. Unlike Siberian and Bengal tigers, there are no recorded cases of a successful breeding in captivity of South China tigers, now most threatened of all.
Hence, their arrival in South Africa – the only place where there is enough land, prey and – crucially – wildlife expertise available to simulate a truly “wild” environment.
The four tigers form part of what is called a “rewilding and breeding” programme.
They are being taught to hunt and kill again in the hope that they can then pass on their newly discovered skills to offspring that can be returned into the wild.
There are only an estimated 10-30 South China tigers left in the wild, but there has been no sighting for years. A further 6,000 survive in zoos across the world. In 2002, the tigers were even declared extinct by the Cat Specialist Group of IUCN, the World Conservation Union.
Li Quan, dismissed as a wealthy dilettante by some, had other ideas. With the help of her London-based investment banker husband, Stuart Bray, she poured millions of pounds into creating the 33,000 hectare (82,000 acre) Laohu Valley reserve where the experiment is taking place. At the same time, she lobbied the Chinese authorities to create reserves in China where “rewilded” tigers could be returned and set free.
Her Save China’s Tigers (SCT) – a private charity, inspired by her love of cats, big and small, and a safari to Africa where she saw lions in the wild – bought 17 former sheep farms in South Africa and hired local conversation experts, such as Mr Openshaw who worked for years for South Africa’s national parks department, to oversee the project.
China’s forestry and wildlife department has now agreed to set aside two reserves of 15,000 and 18,000 hectares, which SCT will finance.
This is where Li now hopes the offspring of the four tigers currently on the reserve will one day be released. With so few South China tigers left, it is too much of a risk to free the few surviving ones.
The first stage of the project, teaching zoo tigers to hunt again, has been declared a success.
“The next big challenge is a carefully controlled breeding programme. All future cubs will go through rewilding training in order to prepare them to return to China,” Li said.
The hope is that the cubs or the cubs’ cubs will have virtually no contact with humans and will adapt quickly to the new environment.
Animal rights campaigners accuse her of cruelty by allowing blesbok, a small antelope-like animal, to be killed in such a manner, but Li dismisses the accusations. “If the tiger survives, you protect other species. Conservation is the winner here,” she said.
The initiative has brought Li and her supporters into conflict with the powerful conservation lobby.
She says nothing in her previous career working with fashion groups such as Benetton and Gucci could have prepared her for the bitchiness of the “big cat walk”, but dismisses it as the result of a deep dislike of outsiders encroaching on what they see as their territory.
It is an argument Stud 327 could understand. Cathay moved into his enclosure the moment the door was left open.
The Latin name for the South China tiger is Panthera tigris amoyenis
It is one of the smaller subspecies of tigers, the males measuring about 2.5m (8ft) from head to tail
Male tigers average 300-350lb in weight, females 200-250lb
The South China tiger can be distinguished from the Bengal or Siberian tiger by the wider space between its short, broad stripes
In 1949 it was estimated that there were more than 4,000 South China tigers living in the wild
By 1987, a field survey conducted by Chinese scientists reported only a few tigers remaining in the Guangdong mountains bordering Hunan and Jiangxi
Another survey in 1990 noted evidence of about a dozen across 11 reserves in the mountains of Guangdong, Hunan, and Fujian province, but there were no sightings
Three tiger subspecies are believed to have become extinct in the last 70 years: the Caspian tiger, the Javan tiger, and the Bali tiger
The Caspian tiger once ranged in Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey, Mongolia and Russia, and is believed to have become extinct in the 1950s.
The Javan tiger was native to the Indonesian island of Java, and was last seen in 1972
The last Bali tiger is believed to have been killed in 1937
Sources: www.tigerhomes.com; www.savethetigerfund.org, www.scu.edu.au