Sunday, 21 September 2008

History in the Making - Hulooo Meets His Mother

I had the chance to see Madonna's little cubs at close range a few days ago, when Reuters came to report on our project. What a privilege to see them again! Their eyes were now fully opened but still with a blue film. They were quiet and gave us an initial silent hiss, but calmed down even trying to sleep when they saw we were quiet too.
The following couple of days were cold cold - with temperature dropping to minus 5 and then a mighty wind blew day and night. I wonder if Madonna's pacing with her cub in her mouth was due to her showing off to 327, or to the cold, or to the wind? Or a combination of all? She did move the cubs yesterday in the cutting wind, so wind was certainly a factor.
Cathay still has not come into oestrus! So I decided to use this window of time to introduce her to Hulooo. Since she never suckled Hulooo, this meeting should not affect her natural oestrus cycle. This step was supposed to be a dangerous faux-pas again. Many people had warned me not to introduce Hulooo back to Cathay, warning me that she will kill Hulooo. Even Nick Marks believed so. However, this is a necessary risk to take, for Hulooo's benefit and for his future rewilding training. I was also confident that she would not harm Hulooo for a number of reasons. First, she did not harm TigerWoods and Madonna when they were introduced to her which was also unconventional and on the contrary took them under her wings. Secondly, I have been observing her similarly and found she would chuff at Hulooo whenever she saw him. There was never any maliciousness, as TigerWoods would display, for example towards 327.
Despite what I believe, I got our team well prepared so we would be in a position to pull Hulooo into another camp in the event of trouble. We shut JenB and Coco into quarantine camp and left Hulooo in the 9 hectare. Hulooo would of course be attracted by the food in the quarantine camp so would not wander too far away so he is always close to our gate which we can open up to let him in.
We were ready, and Cathay was let into 9 hectare camp from the half hectare at the other end. She certainly took her time, calling while moving at leisure through the 9 hectare camp in our direction of the quarantine camp, as if knowing what was coming. I had anticipated much tension and potential game of dominance and submission, as with Cathay and TigerWoods when they were put together, so I got all our camera gears ready to record this unprecedented event.
Cathay came closer and closer, still looking absent minded when she approached Hulooo. Hulooo did not seem to smell her or hear her, crouching over the small piece of bone that we gave him earlier. Cathay went close to Hulooo and I anticipated anxiously what was to come. Would she challenge Hulooo? Would she hit him? Would she roar at him? Would she attempt to harm or even kill him? She is after all a tigress who has quite a bit of temper and who is extremely protective of things that are hers. For example, she hit her own cub when he tried to chuff at Madonna and tried also to crush him under her body so he could not greet Madonna. Therefore, I had anticpated at least potentially a game of dominance with Hulooo as well.
Cathay was now towering over the crouched Hulooo. Just when she lowered her head, actually to chuff at him, Hulooo got startled. Jumping, he turned around emitting a little roar at his mother! Cathay looked a bit lost, looking at us blankly, pretending nothing happened. Then she walked to her favourite big tree about 20 meters away and started another of those love affairs with it, even meat could not entice her away.
Then, she wandered off, sniffing the grass as she went. Suddenly, as if making up her mind, she ran towards Hulooo in a jolly gait, chuffing at him. For a few moments, Hulooo sniffed Cathay and lightly pawed her. Then, as if remembering something, Hulooo suddenly hitted out at his mother. Strangely, or not, all Cathay did was to chuff at him . What followed next was most unthinkable and probably never observed! Hulooo stood up and pushed his steps aggressively towards Cathay, pawing his way. Cathay continued chuffing at Hulooo while walking backwards. Hulooo alternated between sniffing and pawing his mother but his light pawing would turn into nasty strikes. He even stood up on his feet at one time arms spreading, as if fighting. I got to say he looked much like a spoilt child lashing out at his parents.
Cathay, large hearted, allowed her son to make these aggressive moves towards her without any slight sign of anger or complaints. She just retreated and returned Hulooo's meaness with kind chuffing. Her behaviour made me think that she must know this is her son! How could she be so tolerant otherwise? She has always been very maternal and she must know! Hulooo's behaviour on the contrary made me feel as if he was getting back at Cathay for something. Maybe he was getting back at her for not rearing him at birth?! Maybe he also knew Cathay is his mother? Otherwise why was he so unafraid of this much bigger tiger, while getting terrified of his younger and much smaller brothers? He got to know the truth! (And cats have to have their own language!)
After a few rounds, Hulooo decided to call it truce. Cathay, as if nothing had happened, wandered back to her favourite tree and lay down next to it, admiring the setting sun..
I have realized why Hulooo was not scared of his mother but quite playful and rough with her. He was used to big animals… humans! So when he sees another big animal - his mother, he was just doing the same playing and challenging, as he does to us! These results are amazing as it contradicts the conventional zoo wisdom of how a mother and cub would interact when reintroduced. Another first for our project!
What a great and generous mother Cathay proves to be, yet again!

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

All That Excitement at Laohu

Sept 15, 2008 Another Step

Back to Laohu Valley again and so many things have to be completed in next few weeks. I always miss the tigers when I am away so I looked forward to seeing them. I got a surprise this morning, for good and for bad! Madonna was pacing with a cub in her mouth along 9 hectare fence this morning, almost as if showing off to Cathay who was watching her lying in the grass on the other side of the fence. Every time Madonna passed Cathay, she would chuff at Cathay - the cub in her mouth did not seem to stop her. I was dead worried. Another cub was crying in the grass too. I told Vivienne to get Cathay and TW into the 40 hectare today so Cathay stops being a nuisance to Madonna.

Meanwhile, it looks like our experiment of putting Hulooo with his younger brothers has been a complete success. The three of them were now living together, playing together and resting together. The only time we must separate them is when they feed. Hulooo, very much like his dad, seems to have a bottomless stomach and would steal his brothers' food if he has the chance.

I made a decision to let Hulooo and his younger brothers go into 9 hectare camps tomorrow, given the good relationship of the three and in preparation for Cathay to be reintroduced back to all her sons after she has mated.

Sept 16, 2008. Foray Into 9 Hectare

An exciting day awaited the cubs though morning was with a freezing cold breeze.

Hulooo was waiting for us in the breeding centre; we walked in to greet him and startled a pigeon in the rafters. Hulooo’s attention was immediately drawn away from us and he contemplated the best way to reach it and decided that the most direct route was up the mesh. That didn’t help very much and he returned to terra firma and the pigeon took off. Having lost his meal he moved outside to pester the youngsters and ended up being chased by JenB, followed closely by Coco. Round and round they ran until Hulooo was tired out.

We opened the gate connecting the quarantine and 9ha camps and laid a piece of old meat to attract the attention of the cubs. Contrary to expectations, Coco was first to go through the gate; sniffing as he walked. Unsure of what his next move was, he retreated into the quarantine camp. Gathering his nerves together with both hands he again ventured into the 9ha enclosure. This time he was positive that he was on the right track he disappeared into the long grass full of fresh new smells, forgetting about the meat all together.

JenB had also plucked some courage together by this time and also made a move. Just as unsure as Coco he sat down in the gateway to ponder; deciding that if Coco could come out of it unscathed, then so could he! He hopped through following speedily in his brother’s footsteps. Next it was Hulooo’s turn and unsurprisingly he ran through eager to explore. All three of the cubs enjoyed themselves tremendously running around, stalking one another and investigating every blade of grass.

Hulooo stole my camera bag and we all chased him around trying to get it back. It was a challenge! At one point he took to the edge of a rock with residual pool of stream water underneath and I was so sure that my bag with all its content would be lost there! Thankfully, the bag was caught in some branches when Hulooo jumped down and we managed to salvage my bag, now firmly carrying it across my shoulder so not to give Hulooo any chance again. I was so pleased to see how happy the three were.

Hulooo found a bird in the afternoon and went first after it but lost interest after the second squawk. JenB and Coco took advantage of the hiatus and stole the bird, running off to parts unknown and fighting intermittently. Eventually all was quiet in that sector. As dusk began to settle we returned to the breeding centre with Hulooo in close attendance. We fed him, to his delight, but saw no sign of the other two; so we left the gate open should they wish to return, content that this move had proven a popular one with the young tigers!

Sept 17, 2008. Microchipping the Young Tigers

It has been a month as of yesterday since we separated Cathay from her cubs. Last time she came into oestrus after 22 days, which is longer than other tigresses as observed in zoos - normally between 5 to 10 days. Madonna had the same post partum oestrus cycle as well so I wonder if this is a characteristic of the South China Tigers, or a result that they live in natural conditions?! No one can tell me. Cathay's normal oestrus cycle is about once every month, but now, a month has past there was still no sign. Is this also because she lives like a wild tigress? I had planned, based on her post partum’s oestrus cycle, or normal monthly cycle for her to breed now so she could give birth in the hottest time of the year - January. I also wanted to supervise the reintroduction of her back to her cubs - including Hulooo (which is supposed to be a risky step) before I head back to London to look after the increasing number of affairs awaiting me. So I feel anxious.

It was going to be another important day, as we prepared for the microchipping of the three Cathay cubs. Hulooo was in the quarantine camp when we arrived and ambled into the breeding centre without any coercion and we closed him in. We had to entice JenB and Coco (who got his new name recently through a contest ran by one of our sponsors, Asian Tigers Group) back into the quarantine camp and into the breeding centre by dangling some meat up-wind from them. Madonna also smelt the meat and came galloping up to the fence to see if she was perhaps going to be treated to some, when she saw that she wasn’t going to receive any she walked away into the long grass; back to her hidey-hole.

The micro chipping turned out to be much more challenging than I had expected. When Madonna was treated for her dehydration at the age of 7 month, wild as she was, we easily caught her with a blanket. However, the two younger brothers proved to be truly wild! They were together in the outer section of the breeding centre ensconced in a breeding box, anticipating the upcoming events.

When our Vet Joseph arrived, I assigned tasks and chose a number of the bravest personnel to enter the cage armed with a blanket and a spade. JenB shot out of the box like a bat out of hell, growling ferociously as he was herded into a corner. He leapt up, ripped the blanket out of their hands, and retreated back into the box.

A second failed attempt and we retreated in good order to re-plan our strategy. Joseph asked if we had any cages and I was so relieved to let him know that not only we do, we have also been training them to use it, thank goodness! The cage was carried up to the sliding door and positioned it in such a way as to be the only escape from a gang of pursuers. JenB found himself deprived of free movement and, Joseph also decided, received a small amount of tranquiliser. This dose proved to be too small and when Dr Van Heerden dragged him out by his tail he spied a gap and took it; bolting around the cage and into the open.

He ran outside the breeding center, half way down the length of Hulooo’s old camp with all my staff members after him. Realizing that he was now in unfamiliar territory he turned around and was herded into the tiny camp in front of the quarantine camp. Here we witnessed to what lengths a cornered cat will go to, to escape! He climbed up the fence and through the electrified wires at the top -all the while being shocked by the current. However he was impervious to their throbbing and dropped down into the camp. Taking advantage of his predicament; the vet, himself in a lightening speed, was able to dose him with a slightly stronger sedative. This had the desired effect and he fell asleep, allowing the good doctor to implant the microchip. Three minutes after the sedative had been reversed JenB woke up.

Hulooo was next and the only trouble was he just wanted to play. Given the excitement surrounding him, he was even more hyper, again picking up my camera bag as a trophy! He had to be given a blanket to play with and the vet quickly injected the microchip under the skin of his neck. He whined for being grabbed at his neck but fortunately it was soon over.

Coco was last and we now had more experience. He was also chased into the crush cage and received a full dose of the sedative, putting him to sleep in a matter of minutes. He was also dragged out, the chip implanted and the sedative reversed. Realising how stressed they must have been we left them to recover.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

The Cheetah Country of Namibia

We were honoured to be invited to attend the council meeting of a new but dynamic organization in Namibia. This organization is called Leadership For Conservation in Africa (LCA) and was started in August 2006 by South African Parks and aims to involve business leaders across African countries in wildlife conservation, not only financial support but also in business practices. It has quickly grown to such influence in such a short period of time due to the support of many governments and businesses across the continent.
The delegates from 26 countries were high caliber to say the least. I met the Congolese Minister of Economics, Forestry and. Environment - Mr. Henri Djombo, who just returned from Beijing where he led the Congolese team to attend the Olympics, for example. Congo was in world news recently due to discovery of a "new population" of Western Lowland gorillas numbering 125,000. Minister Ojombo will host next year's council meeting in the Odzala-Kokoua National park in Congo, again in September.
We were honoured with the speech by the Namibian president at the Presidential Breakfast during the first day of the council meeting. Namibia is another country that takes conservation seriously and this showed through the President's speech as well as those of other local business leaders, both black and white. The enthusiasm shown by all clearly demonstrates that Africa leads in conservation, both in attitudes and in practice. Also wildlife conservation is regarded by Namibians as crucial in the country's economic development, where the two are intricately linked. How I wish this kind of relationship can be understood by important government and business leaders in China! China should be at a stage to understand that further economic development would not be possible for China without conserving whatever is now left of its natural heritage. Development without conservation will destroy the very foundation on which we, as a member of this planet, have thrived.
After the Presidential Breakfast, we flew in small chartered planes to Etosha National Park, where the council meeting continued. I can't believe that it has been 4 years since I came to Etosha in August 2004 - so much had happened in the past four years....
I continued to be impressed by the representatives from many African countries for the work they have done. Rwanda stood out. It wasn't that long ago, in our memory, that Rwanda was torn by internal ethnic conflicts, but now Rwanda stands as a model for us all in its revival-the remarkable job it has done to conserve its mountain gorillas and make it sustainable for both the gorillas and local communities through eco-tourism. How I wish representatives from Chinese authorities could be present to experience this passion flowing in this meeting of the minds. Given the achievements it has to date, I have no doubt the the LCA will achieve great conservation deeds in Africa.
After the council meeting, Stuart and I flew south to visit Namib Naukluft National Park and the famous Namib sand dunes in Sussusvlei, since this was Stuart's first visit. Nine years ago I came here and it was in this Namib desert that I encountered my first "wild" cheetah. The fate of that abandoned cheetah provided sound proof for our Rewilding strategies for the South China Tigers later.
The desert is still beautiful and the Sand Dunes magnificent. There might have been changes in the shapes of the dunes in the past nine years but the changes were certainly minor compared to the changes I have experienced in my life in the past 9 years, since that cheetah encounter. Then, I had control of my life, but now my life is controlled by the South China Tigers. It was hard for me when I found out that my blackberries did no work here so I could not communicate with our team easily on what's going on. I worry. I could not wait to get back to SA to be at work again. My work is my life and my work, luckily, is the South China Tigers.
I do look forward to next year's Council meeting in the Congo, a place I had always wanted to visit due to my interests in the pygmies, who still live in the forests there...