A steel cage-covered jeep barrels through the gates at the Siberian Tiger Park in Harbin, China, and tosses out a scrawny pheasant. A few lazily sunbathing tigers lift their heads in curiosity. In a matter of seconds, one tiger leaps toward the confused creature, which musters up enough energy to flutter away. But, the bird's small victory is short-lived: The tiger, followed by several freeloaders, chases it into the tall grass.
The world's largest tiger-breeding center located in northeastern China has a whopping 800 Siberian tigers, enough to keep the species alive for a century. But their cousins - the South China tigers, a smaller subspecies with shorter, more widely spaced stripes that was the focus of a government eradication strategy in the 1950s - are struggling just to survive a few more years. The situation is dire: Most conservationists have given up hope, and the species was declared extinct in the wild in 2002. "It's already too late" to save the South China tiger, says Yutang Liu, a professor at the Northeastern Forestry University in Harbin. Currently only 67 are alive, 63 of which are caged in Chinese zoos. One former fashion executive, however, is refusing to call it quits.
Li Quan, a 45 year-old Beijing native, started working in the fashion industry after attending business school, eventually heading up worldwide licensing for Gucci. After leaving the industry and taking an ecotourism trip to Zambia, she decided to dedicate herself to saving big cats. In 2000, she launched the UK-based Save China's Tigers (SCT). Her ambitious plan, to reintroduce tigers that can hunt and survive in the wild, has so far cost approximately $10 million, provided largely by her husband, an investment banker.
She's used the money to establish the Lahou Valley Reserve, an unconventional preserve located in South Africa on a 33,000-hectare stretch of grassland. South Africa has much experience in wildlife management, she says, and land and prey are easy to obtain. The climate, which is similar in temperature but drier than southern China, is not a problem. To habituate the tigers to hunting, reserve manager Peter Openshaw and his team feed dead prey to the animals, much like a tigress would. Gradually the cubs are introduced to small enclosures with small live prey, and then larger enclosures with larger prey.
This spring, the Chinese government provided SCT with a male South China tiger named Stud327, but the zoo tiger is still being held in a small enclosure while he acclimates to the freedom of the reserve. SCT's three other tigers - two females and a male, also provided by the Chinese government - learned to hunt within one year of being at the Lahou Valley Reserve.
Quan "is quite successful to demonstrate clearly that the tiger can recover the ability to live in the wild, get used to the local environment, and catch live animals," says Yanchun Xu, a biologist at Northeastern Forestry University in Harbin. Still, the tigers have yet to reproduce. It's not a surprise, says Openshaw. "Saving a species that is on the brink of extinction is a very costly and time-consuming exercise," he says. "Anything can happen."
Quan does have critics: unexpectedly, other conservationists. Peter Jackson, Chairman Emeritus of the World Conservation Union's Cat Specialist Group, says that Quan is attempting an impossible undertaking. Of the 67 tigers that remain, some individuals have lost the ability to reproduce, and rampant inbreeding may have led to lower resistance to pathogens. "I don't believe that a viable population can be created. A minimum population of 300 is needed," says Jackson.
Quan's decision to re-wild the tigers in South Africa proves that there is simply no room for them in China's disappearing wilderness, adds Sue Lieberman, director of WWF's Global Species Programme. "We can save the tiger, but we shouldn't put our efforts into the South China tiger."
Quan, obviously, disagrees. "I believe that everybody on this planet has obligations, responsibilities, to preserve ancient animals like the South China tiger," says Quan.