for National Geographic News
On a grassy plain in South Africa, thousands of miles from home, four zoo-bred South China tiger cubs are learning to hunt in the wild.
The hope is that they will one day pass on their skills to their offspring, allowing the next generation to return to wildlife reserves in China, where they will be able to fend for themselves and propagate their species.
Four decades ago, approximately 4,000 South China tigers lived in the wild. Today there are only about 30. An additional 64 live in 19 zoos in China.
The tigers are in more danger of extinction than China's most famous animal, the giant panda, according to Cai Qinhui, chief veterinarian of Guangzhou Zoo in southern China's Guangdong Province.
The 64 captive tigers in China are all descendants of six wild animals seized in 1956. Inbreeding is a major problem. Compared to their wild ancestors, the tigers in captivity are smaller, weaker, and more prone to disease.
In addition, the male tigers in captivity have low sperm counts and show little interest in the femalesa sure path to extinction. Newborns have a high rate of birth defects and a lower survival rate. Lifelong captivity has added to the South China tiger's problems. Pollution and a diet containing food additives have contributed to about half the old tigers dying of cancers.
Stepping into the void, Li Quan, a native of Beijing who formerly headed Gucci's worldwide licensing business, founded Save China's Tigers. In November 2002 the foundation negotiated an agreement between China and South Africa for a joint project designed to reintroduce the offspring of zoo animals back into the wild.
She chose South Africa as a partner because of the country's track record in conservation issues.
"Wherever I went in southern Africa, I found South Africans involved in such projects," Li said. "I thought they must be the best. I eventually persuaded the Chinese government to work with them. I pointed out they had saved endangered species like rhinos and were not desktop scientists."
Building Skills in the Wild
Two pairs of cubsone-year-old Hope and Cathay and six-month-old Tiger Woods and Madonnaare currently living in separate enclosures on an 81,500-acre (33,000-hectare) estate in the semidesert Karoo region of South Africa. The estate was purchased by Li's husband, international banker Stuart Bray.
The cubs' new playground, called Laohu Valley Reservein rough translation, Laohu means "old tiger" in Chinesespans the Orange River. Two-thirds of the reserve falls in the grassy Free State Province, the rest is shrubland in the Northern Cape Province.
SOURCES AND RELATED WEB SITES