Fashioning conservation

Credit: Courtesy of Save China's Tigers 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, ch

By | October 1, 2007

<figcaption> Credit: Courtesy of Save China's Tigers</figcaption>
Credit: Courtesy of Save China's Tigers

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.

One former fashion exec has spent millions on what some deem a lost cause.

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.


Avatar of: Tom King

Tom King

Posts: 1

October 23, 2007

We have the technology with DNA testing, Internet based database tools, electronic tagging and tracking devices and modern animal husbandry techniques to save the South China Tiger. If there are those who want to do so, why does the animal rights community and the elitists in the major wildlife conservation groups protest Li Quan's efforts to save this subspecies of tiger?\n\nI'm a fund-raiser for a US tiger refuge. I know quite well the answer to this question. The conservation community is looking at its donor base and is fearful lest programs like Li Quan's draw money away from the largely political efforts in which many of these conservation groups are engaged. \n\nTo potential donors, practical efforts like Li Quan's are far more sexy than appeals for more money for lawyers and lobbyists so we can pester the reluctant Indian and Chinese governments to do something about saving their tigers. People would rather give to something they can see and get their minds around. Politics is too esoteric and donors to political action are too easily lured away by Steve Irwin-like, hands-on species rescue projects. \n\nTens of millions of wildlife conservation donor dollars have been poured into efforts to get Asian countries create animal protection laws, to set aside large tracts of land and spend vast sums of money to protect their native tiger species. Unfortunately, the net result of that effort has been that wild tiger populations have plummeted - less than half the wild tigers alive in 1997 are still alive in the wild in 2007.\n\nLi Quan has shown that there is a chance that we can reintroduce captive bred tigers into the wild at some future time and is ahead of the pack in developing those techniques. She's already shown evidence that the long held believe among zoologists that tigers cannot be reintroduced into the wild, just might be wrong! \n\nWith the tiger facing complete extinction in the wild, conservationists cannot stick their heads in the sand and hope somebody will write enough laws that will insure that tigers are saved for future generations. New conservation law will do little to change the fate of wild tigers. \n\nThere are virtually no game preserves in existent today that are large enough to allow for the 300 tiger minimum needed to support a genetically healthy population. The only one that is close is threatened constantly by human encroachment and poaching. \n\nIt will take human effort. We'll have to develop a strategy to strengthen the captive gene pool and to inject new genetic material into wild and semi-wild populations to support them on existing small refuges. \n\nWith a coordinated effort by mavericks like Li Quan and others, saving China's Tigers are well within the realm of possibility.\n\nShame on those who say "It's not worth it." I think a little less talk and a little more action is called for. As a donor myself, I know where I'll be sending my dollars to save the tiger.

October 26, 2007

To: Tom King,\nThank you for your insightful comments and your support for our efforts. It is people such as yourself who encourage me not to give up faced with much criticism and sometimes even worse. Like the saying: Actions speak louder than words - Wouldn't the tiger have a better chance getting saved if the millions of dollars spent lip-servicing tiger conservation actually went to concrete actions? Another trouble with some of these big organizations is they hold no accountblility towards the public since there are no shareholders checking what they are doing with donors money. Although we are small, we want to be effective and make a difference, despite the many obstacles facing us - the worst of which is actually the "establishment" -big organizations who use their deep corporate pockets to continually obstruct our efforts. But I do hope we will succeed nevertheless. Thank you again!\n

Popular Now

  1. Thousands of Mutations Accumulate in the Human Brain Over a Lifetime
  2. Two Dozen House Republicans Do an About-Face on Tuition Tax
  3. 2017 Top 10 Innovations
    Features 2017 Top 10 Innovations

    From single-cell analysis to whole-genome sequencing, this year’s best new products shine on many levels.

  4. The Biggest DNA Origami Structures Yet
    Daily News The Biggest DNA Origami Structures Yet

    Three new strategies for using DNA to generate large, self-assembling shapes create everything from a nanoscale teddy bear to a nanoscale Mona Lisa.