Any schoolchild will tell you that there are no tigers in Africa – but they would be wrong. They are hunting and breeding in the wild in the African bush in a remarkable scheme to save the most iconic sub-species of the magnificent Asian big cat from extinction.
A century ago there were 40,000 South China tigers roaming across a vast area of south-eastern China. Today the animal is extinct in the wild in China: only some fifty to sixty of these emblematic animals, widely believed to be the original “stock” from which all nine tiger sub-species evolved, survive in Chinese zoos.
Enter Li Quan, a rich and petite Chinese high-flying Gucci fashion executive, who persuaded the Chinese government to back her dream of reintroducing tigers to the wild in China after first retraining zoo animals in the art of hunting across 130 square miles of African bush.
Li Quan bought and game-fenced seventeen defunct sheep farms straddling the mighty Orange River in South Africa’s sparsely-populated Karoo, and named it Laohu Valley Reserve – valley of the tigers. Once the sheep-denuded vegetation and local prey animals had begun to recover, Beijing, in 2004, released from Shanghai Zoo four young South China tigers, including two who were rechristened Madonna and TigerWoods.
The initial task of getting the animals to behave like real wild tigers was tricky. They had been fed only chicken in their Chinese zoo and had only ever trodden on concrete. “They had never seen grass before and were reluctant to move from their trailers and put their paws into the dirt and grass of Africa,” said Li Quan.
They were put initially into an enclosure with guinea fowl and chickens as their practice prey. It took them time to understand that things that moved were their lunch.
But within four years huge breakthroughs had been made. The tigers were stalking and killing South African prey animals such as blesbok, kudu and springbok. Madonna and TigerWoods and others that arrived from China were ready to mate. In November 2007 the first South China tiger cub was born in the African wilderness.
Thirteen cubs have been born altogether, six in the past year, in Laohu. There have been setbacks. One tiger died of pneumonia and a cub was taken by one of Africa’s great predatory eagles. But the survival rate for the tigers is many times greater in the Karoo than in China’s zoos where it is believed about nine out of ten tiger cubs fail to survive.
Of course, it is little use to “re-wild” Chinese tigers in Africa if there are no wilderness areas with good populations of prey species for them back home. The Chinese government has identified four areas where reserves can be created in South China.
But the problems of creating reserves in such a densely populated country as China are immense. The reserves will have to be a minimum of 80 square miles in area. They will have to be fenced, restocked with local game and protected by armed rangers.
Chinese communities are notorious for using wild animal parts for medicine. Powerful criminal gangs are bound to try to target the new reserves. Li Quan and her supporters are, however, undeterred.
l Scottish broadcaster and author Sue Armstrong will tell the story of the Chinese tigers in Africa in a two-part BBC Radio 4 series on Tuesday 28 February and 6 March at 11am, to be repeated at 9pm on 1 and 8 March.