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 

1 comment:

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