Friday, 21 November 2008

South China Tiger Cathay Giving Birth

I remember how angry she looked when she snarled at me when I first saw her in the zoo cage in China four years ago. I remember how grateful I felt when she gave me a first ever chuff after she was moved to our wildlife reserve in South Africa.
I remember how puzzled she looked when she caught her first live prey. I remember how proud she seemed when she made her first successful hunt.
I remember how determined she was in tackling a difficult enemy. I remember how lustful she appeared when she was pursuing a mate.
Now she is giving birth! The birth of first ever cub, the rebirth of our project. We have established a milestone. We can tell our critics: to stop talking and get into action!

She has not made it easy for us. Having been fully rewilded, she was so angry being caged and refused to be inside the proper quarters. I was torn between letting her having her way therefore giving birth wherever she chooses out in the open, and confining her to the breeding centre purposely built for the birthing. This is a choice between leaving these first ever born cubs to nature's will, and securing the cubs at all costs by human intervention.

But the goal is clear, we are trying to rescue the last of the South China Tigers from extinction and the birth of these cubs represents new hope. We have to help them, as we have done in the past years with our unconventional ways. We must be ready to try any untried methods in order to save this subspecies.

It was unseasonably cold in the night of Nov 23 and all our staff wore winter clothes. Cathay, after more than a day of pacing, finally gave birth to a male cub of 1.20 kilo-larger than usual-at 11.30 pm. seeing it motionless and soundless; I had thought it was dead, especially since the mortality rate of the South China Tigers is about 60 percent in Chinese zoos. Cathay, looking back behind her, saw this thing too. She started licking it. There seemed some life to the thing..."Licking it, please lick it", we prayed. But Cathay picked it up with her mouth, albeit gently, and started pacing. She was probably look for a dark place to hide it but there was no dark place except the indoor quarters that she had not learned to like. We had to intervene or the cub would be frozen to death. With a purposely made hooked-pole, we tried to swap the cub from under her. She lounged forward, trying to grab her baby. For a moment my heart froze-fearing she might have caught it, and caught it too hard which might have killed the cub. But luckily, our team got hold of the baby, and he was taken through emergency care measures. He let out a cry half an hour later, much to my relief. Fortunately Cathay had only one cub in this first litter of hers, so we would not have to worry about her reaction were we to take away her other cubs.

I am so grateful for the selfless support of many to make this successful. I am particularly thankful to Eddie Van Ecke of Lory Park Animal and Owl Sanctuary for helping us making this event go smoothly..

We have also learned some new lessons for our program. Our challenge is much bigger than simply undertaking a rewilding experiment which we have succeeded nicely. Our goal -which we can never loose sight of, is to save the South China Tiger from extinction.