Friday, 3 February 2012


Madonna and Cubs

Jan 28, 2011

Everything was going according to plan. We managed to get Madonna into another camp leaving her 3 babies alone so we can walk into the camp, catch them and microchip them. Joseph was called immediately and it would take him 2.5 hours to drive from Kimberly, but unfortunately he had to take care of an emergency veterinary operation for a horse somewhere first.

I informed team my rough idea:  we were to station ourselves at different locations of the camp, thus preventing the cubs from getting close so they could potentially crawl under/through/over the fence, all of which had been part of our Laohu experience!  And we were to catch the cubs with capture net and fishing net, a effective and harmless technique learned from Chinese zoos. In the end we agreed on a plan, that just before the vet arrives we would proceeding with the operation and two of the three cubs would be put into each of the two travel boxes while a third will receive microchip. Microchipping itself doesn’t last long-it’s the preparation that takes time. But having had plenty of experiences and learning from past mistakes I think our plan covered all grounds. However more often than not, dealing with nature does not go according to plan. 
Xa in the net

I was so looking forward to it. Not that I care so much about the microchipping which is a government requirement, but we could use this opportunity to sex the cubs. Last week, I was telling our tiger supervisor Vivienne that for some reason all the three cubs I observed through my cameras and binos were females. Was I imposing my wish on what I saw? Vivienne said the next day that she definitely saw a male. Well, I said, in that case hopefully we had at least two girls. We badly need more female tigers to address the imbalance between males and females in our second generation South China Tigers born in SA.

One hour, two hours passed. Still no news from Joseph. I was worried about the cubs as today was quite a sunny day. We moved the little concrete water tray next to the big tree which they preferred. Madonna showed up from the deep thicket of 7 Ha camp and watched the commotion, attentively. As soon as they saw mom the cubs all came out to the fence trying to get to mom. At one point one of the cub was zapped by the electrified tripwire which immediately got Madonna to return to the fence, just when she was about to head back into the cool thicket.

It was not until 5pm before we heard from Joseph, but he was only one hour away now from us.

We sprang into action. We used the big capture net to form a barrier so if the cubs would run they would get caught into it. Then we approached the cubs who were now all cowered into the corner of the camp. Madonna, watching from the other side of the fence, started charging the fence at us but got shocked by the electricity which made her even angrier. I kept telling her we were not stealing her babies and they would be fine but all the same, she gave us menacing growls and charges.


It turned out to be fairly easy to scoop up the first and second cub with the fishing net, however they tried to threaten us with their little snarls. They were still quite small though very solid and strong. They were put into two cages. The last one was a bit of challenge as it escaped the fishing scoop and ran to the capture net, where it got caught.  Hein scooped it up and Joseph was, as usual, very quick in his actions and micro-chipped the cub. Time to sex the cub! A girl! She was given a temp name Xa.

The second microchipping also went very smoothly as the cubs seemed to freeze once they were caught. We took head shots from different sides and body shots in order to identify them, as they looked remarkably similar. I lifted her leg to sex her, yet another female!! She was nick-named Yoya and like the first one she was immediately put back into her Ravine camp and she also ran straight into the dense vegetations of the stream.

The third one proved to be more difficult to handle. First we had trouble getting the cub out of the cage. Then the cub was fighting us. We managed to get the chip in and photos taken in the end, not without a bit of casualties. At one point my finger was bitten but no harm done. However, Thinus (our assistant reserve manager) got a bit on his arm, which still looked bloody after the operation completed.

Well what is the chance that ALL 3 cubs in our FIRST ever TRIPLET litter are ALL girls?? When I gently lifted the cub’s little but strong leg, I couldn't contain my excitement! INDEED, ALL 3 of Madonna’s cubs are baby girls!!!!  

WE WON A LOTTERY! AND WE ARE ROCKING!!  We named her Zeta for now.

Feb 2st  2012

Yoya being examined
After Microchipping, we left all the gates connecting three camps open, hoping Madonna would reunite with her 3 cubs overnight. However, the next morning on Jan 29th she was found inside the 2 Ha Ravine camp with two cubs, pacing with another cub on the other side of the fence inside 7 Ha Catkins camp.  For the whole family to get back together, either the lone cub had to come through to the mini-management camp to the Ravine, or Madonna had to come to Catkins to fetch her. During afternoon monitoring this had not yet happened. We managed to coax Madonna into Catkins, hoping the lone cub would follow her back into Mini-camp, then back to Ravine. But the cub refused to cross the threshold. It had to be the same cub that refused to cross the gate in reverse the other day! We left them for the night but by this morning, the status quo remained the same. I had to find ways to get them all back together so Madonna doesn’t have to be caught spending time with two households. The best method again, is the fishing scoop net.

But easily said than done! The cub was much smarter than us! And certainly a lot faster than us! We spent the day yesterday figuring out way to catch her, using Madonna as lure, but needless to say we failed. Her little told her not to trust us and her little legs can certainly run. In the darkness we abandoned our effort to reunite the family and let Madonna decide if she should spend time in Catkins or in Ravines and with which cubs, leaving the two gates between the three camps open. It was not without pity that I retired for the evening, thinking how much of a challenge it was for a tiger mother. Despite having to go back and  forth between the three camps, at no time did she express any sign of anger or impatience to her screaming and demanding cubs, and always showered them with tenderness and patience, no matter how helpless she felt…

The next morning, one more cub moved into Catkins and the cry of the lone cub in Ravine camp was loud and clear. Despite that the eland was not completely finished though Madonna’s family did an impressive job eating most part of it, we decided to give Madonna some fresh carcass. Thinus shot two blesbok and tied them together in the mini-management camp to prevent her from dragging it away, and Vivienne blew the whistle. This time however, Madonna refused to come out to the sound of the whistle or food. She must be getting back to us for using a springbok as bait last night but not giving her the full deal!
Zeta in the net

Another night and no one appeared, not even Madonna. At this point I began to worry seriously that should the cubs be split too long, Madonna could lose patience and stop caring one of them. I doubt tiger mothers do that but still I feared. We had no idea where Madonna was or any of the cubs was. I decided that we should be on whole day monitoring so our staff would do the observation in turn. But by 4pm, not even a shadow of anyone in sight. I was praying that this would be a sure sign that Madonna and her cubs had all gotten together. By 5pm however, only Madonna and one cub was sighted but they soon also disappeared, which made me worry seriously once more.

A tiger-loving journalist from Hong Kong was visiting us to report on our project yesterday. Just when I was prepared to tell him that he was out of luck with Madonna’s cubs and that my team ought to prepare for a day search the next day, when all three cubs were spotted grouping together on Catkins side of the fence line with Ravine Camp.  I was elated..

Zeta taking temperature
I drove into Catkins camp with Ivan the journalist, and we were soon reward with the most incredible sighting: Madonna strolling with three tiny cubs trailing behind her, towards us. She seemed a bit startled when she saw my vehicle, but calmly went into tall grass and lied down just a few meters from us. The cubs, with the aid of the onset of dusk, appeared to be bolder than usual, moving even closer to our vehicle. They soon joined mom demanding milk from her. The they played, chasing one another in the grass and amongst trees. As the light dimmed further, the cubs seemed even more bullish, with one of them approached our vehicle to within 5 meters. She was then distracted by the big stone and started investigating it: looking from one side to another and climbing on top etc. This undaunted little cub turned out to be Xa.

At sunset of today’s sunless day, I again saw Madonna’s family of four. While mom was feeding in adjacent camps, the cubs put on the most exciting show in nature’s stage: chasing and tumbling on top of one another, wrestling and hugging etc. When mom finished eating, they jumped on top of mom demanding to be fed, to which Madonna obeyed obediently and with such love and gentleness. She licked and hugged her cubs tenderly and watch them frolicking with such pride and content..

-From Li Quan at Laohu Valley Reserve, South Africa