Saturday, 26 June 2010

Challenges at Laohu Valley

I certainly did not expect that airplane seats to South Africa were still available , a couple of days before the opening of the World Cup. The domestic terminal of the Johannesburg airport even appeared to be quieter than normal and further the flight from Joburg to Bloemfontein was one of the most empty I had been on. Still, there was quite a bit of festive mood as South Africa was gripped with soccer mania and sent all the school kids on holiday for a month so everyone could devote their time and energy to the participation of the games in whatever format they chose.

While the whole of SA was submerged in soccer mania, life at Laohu Valley Reserve goes on.

The 100 Ha camp presented a much bigger challenge to the young tigers than the 40. A large part of it is very flat and the blesbok learned very fast that if they all bundled together they could watch out for one another much better in their defense against the stripy predators. And bundled together they did! The two groups of tigers, King Henry et sister, Hulooo et bros, had limited success, and all at the beginning of their entry into this camp when the blesbok did not yet know how lethal these large cats could be. After suffering a few casualties, the 40 or so blesbok all moved in synch, running back and forth across the open plains (avoiding the gullies) like a well rehearsed military march, all the time vigilant.

We knew that for a tiger which replies on stalking and ambushing, this open plain and fast running preys would make it very hard for successful hunt, so we cheer for each of their victories. However, upon returning to Laohu this trip, I also realized we have to boost the tiger's morale a bit, and let them gain more confidence. So we introduced some more preys into the big camp. Again, successful hunts by Hulooo brothers in first few days but the new blesbok quickly joined forces with their fellow veterans.

We must search for new solutions and plans were made to purchase more suitable game that resembles those found in the tigers' traditional habitat. While we waited for the new prey to arrive, I was scratching my head for some immediate solutions. The main problem when the blesbok bundled together is that they watch out for one another, with 50 pair of eyes. If danger is spotted, all of them will run together like a single race horse, which make it very difficult for the tigers to compete, as the tigers rely on stalking and ambushing while the blesbok got the speed and stamina. If however there are any ways we can make them scatter a bit, it will increase the chance of a successful hunt for the tigers.

Given that the blesbok is pretty easily agitated, we drove into the big camp with two vehicles. The blesbok indeed started speeding across the plains. The tigers were oblivious of the fact, but eventually they seemed to have spotted a group of about a dozen blesbok that splitted off from the main group and went up the hill. Two of the tigers were seen quickly following.

Suddenly we heard distress calls-a third tiger had caught an antelope! While the kill was in process, we saw from a far distance two blesbok standing not far from one of the two tigers on the other side of the bush. What a good opportunity for another ambush. Sadly, this tiger, whose view was blocked by the bush, did not see these two easy prey and chose to rush to the kill spot made by the third tiger. We only identified the successful hunter as JenB when I drove up there and the tiger who missed a great opportunity as Hulooo.

I managed to squeeze in a quick visit to Gus Van Dyk at Tswalu. Gus designed our rewilding strategy and has been Reserve Manager at the private game reserve of the Openheimers- renowned for their Diamond business. it was unbelievably cold that I managed to get my toes frost-bitten in such a short couple of days, which never before happened. Gus said this was the coldest June he ever experienced in the Kalahari Desert since he moved here 7 years ago.

I didn't expect Kalahari Desert to be actually so full of wildlife. I was however rewarded by seeing one of the rarest animals in the world-the aardvark-in afternoon day light. Other game abound-Tsesebi, Gemsbok, Red Haarst Beest etc. Its a pity I didn't get to see the desert rhino or mountain zebra. However, Gus was in the process of translocating some lions so I got to see this process. The highlight of this trip is playing with a little 3-months old Honey Badger, whose mother was killed on the road and who was brought to Tswalu. The staff was in the process of rehabilating him by training him to live like a wild one, hoping to return him to the wild in the future.

Meanwhile, I hit on the right timing by getting 327 back into Madonna's camp on June 22, as the two got down to their amourous business that same afternoon. The next day, they followed up on their actions and I was able to witness mating of this pair for the first time. Either Madonna's temper has calmed down a bit or she showed more respect for 327-she didn't bother to chase him down in order to slap him after successful intercourse, as she had done with TigerWoods. She just rolled belly up after their affairs. The mating continued for two more days.

King Henry and Princess were having a field day in the 42 ha camp, quickly reducing the number of newly reintroduced prey in a matter of a few short days. It was full moon on June 25th -time for night monitoring. We went inside 40 ha camp at 7.30pm and found the two siblings in North Eastern part of the camp. King Henry was cheerful at play with something, bouncing happily up and down. It turned out to be a young blesbok as we drove closer. They had made a kill already! It was however puzzling as we counted still 6 blesbok left, as was also this morning. Where did this 7th buck come from?? After much angonizing between Vivienne, Sam the volunteer and myself, the only logical explanation was this victim might have got slight injured during the hunt two nights ago and had been hiding somewhere and was rediscovered by the tigers tonight. While KH seemed deeply absorbed in his anntics, Princess quietly left to pursue more hunts.

I left Laohu Valley, missing the tigers and my little companion Sissy cat already.

Sunday, 6 June 2010

Condemning The Ancestor Tiger to Death?

Not just yet! Particularly not in this Chinese Year of the Tiger.  For all that, no lesser a body than WWF (Worldwide Fund for Nature) has already done just that. In the previous Chinese Year of the Tiger, 1998, WWF declared the most ancient tiger in the world – the South China Tiger, extinct; and did so again this year.

This ancestor tiger, from which ALL tigers are derived, has however been given another lease of life due to the ambitious actions undertaken by "Save China's Tigers". It has been an upward struggle and in the words of Vance Martin, CEO of the Wild Foundation, Save China’s Tigers has been “fighting two battles simultaneously: one to save a tiger (arguably a sub-species), and (as if that were not enough) another to defend itself against the (sometimes) seemingly endless internal sniping of the nature conservation world. Who needs enemies when fellow conservationists often serve that function?!”

Ten years on, the fate of the Chinese Tiger is not yet secure but its future could not be brighter. We have proven that given a little help, nature can rebound pretty quickly. 

While most big organisations have denounced the South China Tiger as not worth spending money on, “Save China's Tigers” embarked on a historic journey to rescue it from extinction. Instead of just following the tradition of conducting surveys every few years and making dire pronouncements about the tigers’ worsening predicament, we took ambitious but concrete steps actually aiming to revert the fate of this tiger by increasing its fitness and breeding capacity in wild conditions, and most important of all – by restoring and protecting its habitat. 

We never would have thought this innovative but innocuous experiment would attract so much attention that we underwent malicious slander and attacks in many forms. These same organizations, however, have yet to show any other bright spot in their work. What is worse, commenting on thirty-five years of efforts to save tigers in the wild, Willem Wijnstekers, secretary general of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) said in the recent large gathering of over a hundred countries in Doha, "If we use tiger numbers as a performance indicator, then we must admit that we have failed miserably and that we are continuing to fail."

So what was so bad in what Save China's Tigers, a UK, US and HK registered charity, was doing? After establishing the charity first in London in 2000 and produced what other organisations usually produce (wild tiger population surveys), Save China's Tigers decided to "walk on two legs". While encouraging China to continue protection of the habitat of wild South China tigers (estimated at between 10 to 30 by Dr. Gary Koehler in his 1990/1991 census), the charity also signed a collaborative agreement with the Chinese authorities with the objective of reintroducing zoo-born South China Tigers back in China’s nature reserves to supplement the wild population in case it is no longer viable. The agreement allowed Save China's Tigers to take a few of the last 60/70 zoo-born South China Tigers out of captivity, train them to hunt and fend for themselves in a natural environment, breed them, and return them to China’s wild when their habitat is ready.

The twist was, in order to fast-track the project, this "rewilding" and breeding process took place thousands of miles away from China, in South Africa, home to this year's world cup. South Africa's conservation achievement is well known to those who have been on Safaris in Africa and those who work in wildlife conservation. Ironically, some of our most staunch critics did their field work in South Africa too, so they should understand our logic in pursuing this route.

Despite the obstructions we faced, sometimes truly formidable (such as a letter of threat signed by 8 members of the IUCN Cat Specialist Group, and sent to the then-Minister of Forestry Administration warning the Chinese government not to undertake the project), we were able to set up a highly qualified team of conservationists, with such respected figures like Gus Van Dyk as our Rewilding Strategist, Petri Viljoen as Scientific Leader, and Dr. Ian Player as advisor, etc. Those who have seen a white Rhino outside of Africa may not know that Dr. Player was responsible for exporting the first white rhinos out of SA in the 1960's. His legacy is well embedded in conservation history, since his then much-vilified effort has turned out to save this magnificent species from doom.
South Africa's conservation expertise, which I discovered during safari trips around Africa, very much lived up to its reputation.  While our South African team was busy with rewilding and breeding the five tigers initially brought over from Chinese zoos, our international experts worked with Chinese conservationists to identify and prepare such areas to which the tigers will eventually return.

Despite formidable man-made obstacles, the project's intrinsic challenges (we lost the tiger "Hope" to illness along the way), and other undreamed of incidents (i.e.: animal welfare group NSPCA attempted to have us prosecuted for letting the tigers hunt live prey), we succeeded in rewilding all the first generation of tiger cubs that came from China, and bred them successfully in natural conditions. Five healthy second generation South China Tigers are now fending and hunting for themselves in our Laohu Valley wildlife reserve.

In this Year of Biodiversity, what Save China's Tigers is doing has become all the more relevant. Through saving a flagship species such as the big cat which governs a vast range of habitat, we are protecting and restoring biodiversity including hoofed animals, other predators, plants, water, trees and even insects.

In a letter dated Dec 4, 2000, Dr. Gary Koehler said to me. “I commend and applaud your efforts to conserve the South China Tiger. I do believe that there is a chance to save the tiger in the wild areas of China. With the determination and commitment that was demonstrated in constructing the Great Wall centuries ago I do believe that conserving the tiger in the wild can be accomplished with a similar determination, commitment, and perhaps new strategies in conservation. Such a conservation success would be as profound a legacy as the Great Wall, one that not only the people of China but all mankind could be proud of.”

Born in the Year of the Tiger and also on what is now Biodiversity Day, I often wondered if my life was intended for this seemingly impossible task? But hey, there is no turning back, as a Chinese idiom goes, “Riding the Tiger, one can not get off!”

Li Quan
Founding Director
Save China’s Tigers