The cubs were born in captivity in China and removed from their mothers when they were three months old. Their first home in South Africa was a one-acre (0.4-hectare) quarantine camp where they stayed for a month. Their next home was a ten-acre (four-hectare) enclosure, where they lived for three months to help them adapt gradually to life outside a cage.
Old instincts kicked in when a small antelope strayed into the older pair's enclosure and they pounced. Now just a few months on, and living in a 150-acre (60 hectare) camp, they have become remarkably skilled hunters, said Ronel Openshaw, South Africa's liaison officer for the project. She said they now catch their own blesbok, a medium-size African antelope.
To Petri Viljoen, the South African conservationist in charge of the project, this was exciting progress.
"It took weeks to get them to eat chicken, accustomed as they were to being fed beef at the zoo in China where they were born," Viljoen said. "It took months of practice to hunt a live animal and then make the link between the kill and food. When the two cubs first arrived in South Africa, they didn't even want to leave their cages and prowl the rocky, thorny African veld," he said.
"They were used to the concrete floors of their cages and were reluctant at first to step onto our soil," Ronel Openshaw said.
The two older cubs seem to be overcoming the romance problem. Although only 20 months old, Hope has already started making amorous advances to Cathay. South China tigers, Panthera tigris amoyensis, generally begin to reproduce at about three years old, so they're too young for anything to come of it, says Peter Openshaw, who manages the reserve. "The two are about to move into a securely fenced 14,800-acre (6,000-hectare) camp which is where they take care of themselves," Peter Openshaw said. "But we also fit them with radio collars to monitor their movements and hunting success. We will give them additional food if they have difficulty coping."
Graduating From the Zoo
All four animals will eventually return to zoos in China, but their offspring will be returned to wildlife reserves. The pioneering pairs' cubs will grow up utterly wild, without contact with humans, Peter Openshaw said. The aim is for the first rehabilitated tigers to go to reserves developed in China by 2008, to coincide with the Olympic Games in Beijing.
A joint South African-Chinese team has identified two potential tiger reserves in China, one of about 40 square miles (100 square kilometers) and another of about 30 square miles (180 square kilometers), Li said.
One or both could ultimately be chosen. South African specialists are helping with the rehabilitation of both. Hunting and logging have been stopped, the habitat is being restored, and suitable prey animals will be introduced for the tigers to hunt.
The project has drawn some criticism.
Gus Mills, head of the Carnivore Conservation Group and research fellow of South African National Parks, worries about the tigers' ability to transition from one habitatthe African veldto a completely different ecosystem and prey base in China.
Petri Viljoen is not concerned, saying most large predator species are very adaptable to a wide range of conditions, and the tiger appears to be no exception.
"Free-ranging large carnivores frequently have to cope with changing prey regimes and consequently have to change their diet accordingly when they hunt certain prey species which were perhaps never, or seldom, taken before," he said.
"Adapting from hunting certain African antelope to Asian deer, for example, should therefore not present a major adaptation problem for these tigers. Of course, there is never a guarantee in animal relocation or reintroduction attempts."
Ideally the entire program should be conducted in China, Viljoen said.
"But time is running out fast, and it could well be too late to wait first for the development of a suitable area in China before establishing an effective rewilding program," he said.
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