Monday, 30 May 2011
HUWAA RETURNS HOME
The Journey Back Home:
Formerly Miss X, Huwaa was now three and half months old and was a handful-destroying flowers and plants at the zoo. She was taken away from mom Cathay on her 3rd day to be reared in a secure environment in a zoo to prevent the same fate that happened to her sibling the year before (taken away by a bird of prey). Time had come for her to return to Laohu Valley Reserve. Her new name came from a competition held jointly by Save China's Tigers and Sina.com. "Hu" means "tiger", "Waa" is the name of the female ancestor that begot the world’s human population.
On May 14th, we got the truck packed and ready early in the morning at 8am. To make sure Huwaa didn't have too drastic of an environmental change, her human mom Matty and her husband -frrom the zoo-accompanied us, in order to settle her down and also to teach our own staff at Laohu Valley on how to look after her.
Huwaa, having had plenty of experiences of traveling in the back of the truck (I won't tell you how much the vet runs have cost us!) got into the travel kennel happily. A bed sheet covered the kennel so she couldn't see outside the behicle so she quickly fell asleep. The whole 8 hour journey went very smoothly, with a couple of feeding stops at gas stations where the cute little tiger certainly attracted a few curious onlookers.
My plan was to put Huwaa into the left side cages of our breeding center for the time she has to be kept separate from other tigers in case she may carry any disease from the zoo, and have her mother Cathay staying on the other side. This way, she will have her mom's company without coming into direct contact with her. It will also enable us to reduce human contact with her as she gets more and more familiar with her mom, leading to their reunion. If the reunion goes well, Cathay will be able to keep Huwaa company and teaches her hunting essentials, thus overcoming the problems of her being a single and hand-reared cub, who was not properly socialized as a tiger.
To our great relief, she had no problem settling into the cages of her new environment at all, in fact choosing to lie in the wooden box where once her mother gave birth to her older half brothers. She even seemed to enjoy the smells of the box that carried the smells of both her mom and dad. Cathay was let into her side of the breeding center. She could see her baby daughter from across the corridor that separate the two sides of the cages. She seemed to show her recognition of her daughter, emitting chuffs towards Huwaa. Huwaa also frantically chuffed at her mom, albeit distracted by us humans inside her cage at the same time.
By the time we left her after sunset, she was properly exhausted after a long extended period of excitement.. She was quite sleepy when we went back to have a night check around 9pm.
Mother & Daughter Meet Through Cage Bars:
The next morning when we arrived to feed her, she didn't even come to greet us. When she did emerge from the darkness, happy and excited, she run from one person to another, refusing to eat her meat.. Thus I decided to let her into the outside cage, where she would be able to see Cathay close range to start the reunion process.
Huwaa was taken into the outer cage and she quickly took an intense interest in the wooden box there as well, sniffing with great concentration. She liked what she smelled- the accumulation of scents from others tigers. Mom Cathay was watching Huwaa, also with great interests. She chuffed at her but snarling at the same time, unhappy with the presence of a camera man's big camera and the humans that congregated around it.
Much unlike our other hand-reared tiger Hulooo, Huwaa never had any fear of any other animals in the zoo, often went up close to the big lions' cage. She also sought out some animals to play, such as with Matty's cats and the little dog whom Huwaa terrorized. But with Cathay, she went a step further. As if recognizing it was her mother, she chuffed and chuffed, and rolled on the ground in the wet area on the floor, possibly arising from the spraying of Cathay and covered herself with the scent. Her funny posture in rubbing herself on the floor was hard to describe, moving forward lying sideways on the ground.
The most unusual thing that happened during this meeting was the extraordinary sound that Cathay uttered, when she and Huwaa were facing each other on each side of the metal bars. It took both Matty and myself by complete surprise. Although both of us have seen and worked with many tigers, none of us never ever heard this cry before. It was heart-wretching cry that breaks one's heart. If I must describe it, I have to use human emotion to make a comparison. It was as if a human was crying hard while talking at the same time. Maybe she was saying to Huwaa, "Where the hell have you been??? I thought I lost you!"..
We heard such cries twice-though the second time it was shorter. Afterwards, Cathay seemed to return to her usual calm self and Huwaa was let out into the quarantine camp. She carefully checked out this new territory, sniffing around. But soon she was overcome with excitement, dashing this person and charging that body. She also approached her mother's cage from outside, though having trouble balancing herself on the narrow concrete edge outside the metal bars.
It was a good two hours of excitement and although she appeared to be tired, she refused to give up. Like a human child who is stimulated by human presence, we must leave her alone in order to let her calm down and rest. After all, she does have a medical condition of heart echo and we must make sure she is not over-exhausted and has plenty of rest. I was so relieved that her first close encounter with Cathay through the bars went well.
Meeting Daddy & Other Family At Laohu:
When she was led outside into quarantine camp, Huwaa was timid initially. But the presence of humans gave her confidence and she ran around excitedly, from one human to another. She did respond a bit to her Daddy 327's non-stop chuffings at her - 327 almost seemed to know Huwaa was his daughter.
In the afternoon, she was taken out of the breeding center into the open grassland to get some exercise. She loved the freedom, rolling in long grasses, attacking bushes and even chewing on dried thorns. She stalked me in true tiger fashion, with great patience and caution.
The morning of June 16 she met her half brother JenB who showered her with chuffs. Little Huwaa chuffed back. However, it was still more fun to play with humans.
We decided to start providing her with fresh food. We were all very excited when a guinea fawl carcass was secured and brought to her. To my great disappointment, she would have none of it-not even playing with it, and never mind eating it. No matter how I tried, she showed little interests. In the end we cut the guinea fowl open, hoping the smell of the meat would attract her attention, but again without success. Finally I gave her some meat from the fowl and she ate a few pieces but lost interests again. Even after we took off the feather and cut the fowl completely up she sniffed at the featherless carcass. It reminded me of Cathay and Hope's first encounter with whole food, and I worried she might have a bit of way to go to be rewilded.
But by May 19th, I got totally surprised by her joyful play with the small springbuck leg I had given her the night before. She attacked it, and carried it around like a real tiger would carry its spoils! She also ate quite a big part of it by that afternoon. And when I tried to touch it while she was chewing on it, she uttered just the tiniest little growl at me. I couldn't believe this-she was behaving like a tiger protecting her spoils, and she gave me a few more mini-growls each time I re-tested it. Yes! She was protecting her springbuck leg. How funny this was as she wouldn't care about the sliced meat in her food bowl, nor did she even bother to finish the meat. By May 21st, she had eaten a fairly big springbuck leg! I was overjoyed by her very quick transformation from playing with plastic and cloth piglets to eating whole antelope leg! Soon blesbok legs also became her diet.
Huwaa Meet Mom In Person:
Huwaa and Mom had the most loving session the morning of May 19th, with Cathay stretching her big paw out from under the bars and letting Huwaa touch it. She was so relaxed as there were also just two humans who pose no threat to her. Both mom and baby actually were calmer when there were fewer people, and Huwaa stalked mom from outside Cathay's cage for a good long hour.
It was time to test the physical reunion of Cathay and Huwaa. Conventional wisdom had it that Mothers normally kill their cubs if they have not been together from birth and I was properly warned by kind friends from the zoo community. But again, as quite a few of the experiments we had taken, successfully, they all defied conventional zoo (and therefore unnatural for tigers) wisdom. There would certainly be a risk but given the historical behaviour of Cathay, such as accepting TigerWoods and Madonna etc, I anticipated she would accept her own daughter, never mind that she seemed to have already recognized her.
Their reunification is also important for Huwaa as she needs to be less attached to humans (though this could be a challenge) and learn to behave like a real tiger. Like Hulooo, she will probably forever retain her affection for humans, but unlike Hulooo, she doesn't have siblings that she can be put together with, so I don't have any choice but to reunite her with her own mother. Hopefully Cathay would teach herr to hunt just as she had taught JenB and Coco.
In preparation for this important and potentially risky occasion, I made various preparations beforehand to ensure mother and daughter have a successful reunion. In the morning of May 21st, I myself positioned my
quad-bike Rhino inside the quarantine camp to break down any potential fight that could endanger the life of Huwaa.
Cathay was let out of the breeding center first and she strolled leisurely into the quarantine camp. After that I let Huwaa get into Cathay's side of the breeding center so she can get more familiar with Mom's scent as well as cover herself with Cathay's scent. Huwaa proceeded cautiously but was soon ready to make the move.
The moment I had been waiting and planning for in past months finally came. Gate opened and Huwaa came out to meet mom in person. Cathay and daughter met! Cathay calmly lied down next to the gate and Huwaa chuffed at mommy just as she'd chuff at anyone else. There was no aggression from Cathay's part at all, and it looked as though mother and daughter had never been separated! Soon however Huwaa was ready for her nap and went back into her box within the breeding center. The morning reunion session completely successfully to my great relief, and the moment I had been most worried about did not happen. Cathay had accepted her baby daughter back.
Cathay Shows Daughter How to Eat Game:
In the afternoon, Huwaa was scared by the monitoring vehicles and was afraid to go out into the quarantine camp. I didn't have choice but to remove the vehicles and let Huwaa out to meet mom alone. She was still scared of the potential vehicles so took her time to reach Cathay who was lying at the far corner of the camp. Mother and cub chuffed.
Suddenly a Guinea fawl flew over and in a split second, Cathay sprang forward and caught the fowl. Huwaa was however scared by the flying object, having not yet grasped the concept of winged toys. Cathay set about plucking the feather with her teeth. Just when I had thought the fowl would now be Cathay's snack, I was surprised to see Cathay left the plucked fowl untouched on the ground and went into the shade at the far corner again. What a mother Cathay is! She had actually plucked the fowl for her baby daughter!!
Huwaa was however not impressed and refused to go near the dead fowl. When we eventually managed to entice her to get closer she stopped a meter away from the fowl and then circumvent it. I had to retrieve the fowl and dangle it on her nose for her to take an interest. She then started playing it and carrying it as a real tiger would do.
Believe it or not, we had just written another interesting chapter in the history of tiger conservation on this day-we had broken another rule. We had proven tiger mother does accept her own cub not reared by herself, and she was even looking out for her the first day of their physical reunion. There is a Chinese folk saying: However fierce the tigers they don’t eat their own offsprings.
Huwaa Learn To Be A Tiger:
In the next few days, I made sure that Huwaa and mom were together during the day and separated at night for two reasons. First because Huwaa needs to stay warm within the breedingn center. Second because it would take time for the two to get used to each other after a long separation.
Having always had humans as playmates and never been with another tiger before, particularly a big one such as Cathay, Huwaa was cautious in her approach to mom. She was also not socialized as a tiger so needs to re-learn the tiger behaviors and social order. Somethings she learned quickly, such as defending her springbuck leg against humans, or using her paws to hold it down to make eating easy. Others took her a bit of time and lesson such as never touching a tiger's tail, but Cathay even tolerated her daughter’s antics with her tail.
Huwaa's favorite play is stalking mom when Cathay has her back to Huwaa. At one point, Cathay was grooming herself under the shelter in the quarantine camp when Huwaa initiated stalking her mom. She edged next to the side of the shelter silently thinking mom hadn't seen her. Just when she was about to surprise Cathay, Cathay gave her a chuff, ruining Huwaa's little game - Cathay had known her presence all along!
Another time, Cathay picked up an old bone and started chewing on it. She roared when Huwaa came close and tried to get to it. Huwaa dropped on the ground belly up showing submission while chuffing at mom to make peace. She then found herself a bone to play with. A few minutes later after Cathay finished her snack she came to Huwaa, who gave her mom a little growl to defend her own possession! She had certainly held her fort and learned pretty fast that whoever is in possession of something first, owns it.
In subsequent days, Huwaa would growl back at mom if mom was grumpy at her, chasing mom's tail scaring Cathay into running to avoid it, stalking mom, imitating mom in tacking mom's big fat blesbok meal etc. She is truly on the road to shed her human influence, albeit slowly and with difficulty, to become a real South China Tiger.
Human Influence Hard to Shed
Huwaa made progress but it is clear that her human influence will take a long time, if ever, to be shed. Cathay is patient, even tolerant of her, unlike she was with JenB and Coco that she reared. One day, when the sexually mature Hulooo appeared on the other side of the gate where Huwaa was lying, Cathay thundered over from the gate of the Breeding Center to the two, staging a fight with Hulooo through the fence, defending her “possesion”-Huwaa. Huwaa was terrified, as she had thought mom was being bad to her and she growled loudly at Cathay, even long after Hulooo was moved away. What was impressive was that through out the conflict, Cathay was careful in not treading on Huwaa who was under her feet, even though she did have a little nip at Huwaa’s butt, just as she did with JenB and Coco when they were courting Madonna.
Another time, Cathay was trapped inside the cage, scared of the wooden bed. In her frenzy trying to get out, she kept on slipping which made her even more angry. Faced with Huwaa’s growl at mom’s anxious pacing, Cathay however at no time vented her fear at Huwaa, careful not to step on her. However, Huwaa did not understand all these tiger behaviours and kept growling at mom. Only when I started calling her, did she run out to the other side of the cage and started chuffing. It is clear that Huwaa will have a long way to go to lessen the human influence on her.
May 30th, Laohu Valley Reserve