Tuesday, 10 July 2012

South China Tiger Rewilding Guidelines - First Step to the Reintroduction of Captive Bred Tigers to the Wild

-Authored by Li Quan

I would like to thank the many scientists who gave me input in drafting this document, which is an accumulation of my 13 years of tiger conservation work, which started in 1999.
At the International Wildlife Management Congress (IWMC 2012), the South China Tiger Rewilding Guidelines was officially released. Since 2003, I have undertaken an unprecedented project to rewild zoo-born South China Tigers in South Africa to prepare them for their eventual return to their natural habitat in China in conjunction with China's Wildlife R&D Centre of the Forestry Academy. This pioneering project was ground-breaking in many areas: applying an unconventional approach and utilizing the expertise of a different country in a foreign location to fast-track the recovery of the most ancient, yet most endangered tiger in the world.
Below is an abstract of the Tiger Rewilding Guidelines that I have applied and a full version in both English and Chinese can be obtained here: http://www.savechinastigers.cn/file/2013/RewildingGuidelines.pdf 
Many wildlife management projects have been conducted throughout the world that may involve: rehabilitation, re-introduction or translocation. Few of these activities have successfully been conducted using captive bred predators. Rewilding describes the processes in which carnivores that have been in zoo conditions for generations and have no survival skills for the wild, re-learn the hunting and skills in a natural environment to prepare them to be reintroduced to the wild.
The South China Tiger (Panthera tigris amoyensis) is recognised by the IUCN as the most endangered of the remaining six extant subspecies of tigers. There are believed to be fewer than 30, if any at all, left in the wild. The only option to revive this tiger in the wild is through reintroduction of captive-bred individuals. OUr project aims to utilise rewilded captive bred tigers and their offspring as catalysts to restore and secure habitat for their release in China.  In the wild, offspring of tigers are known to spend up to 28 months with their mothers when they acquire and develop hunting and survival skills. Captive-bred tigers lack these essential hunting skills and need to be rewilded before they can be reintroduced.
Tiger rewilding initially started in China in the 1990’s. South Africa was used to fast track the rewilding project. Five tigers were transferred from zoos in China to South Africa since 2003.
The tigers have been confined to one area of the reserve, subdivided into different-sized camps (0.5 to 100ha), depending on objectives for individual tigers. The number of camps increased over the years as the number of tigers increased, and the sizes of the hunting camps were modified as tigers became more experienced and skilled, and to accommodate the tigers’ development and mimic their movement according to their age. The tiger camps are secured with electrified fences.
There are three categories of camp sizes, according to the age of the tigers and their ability to hunt: quarantine/smaller camps, intermediate camps, advanced rewilding camps. All camps are equipped with natural or supplemental water supplies.
The Rewilding methodology was initially developed for us by Gus Van Dyk, former Carnivore Manager at Pilanesberg National Park of South Africa, and been fine-tuned throughout our rewilding programme, which has followed “Adaptive Management” procedures. The methods have evolved as the project progresses, to suit the changing needs and situations.
Zoo-born tigers that originated from China, were introduced to ungulate prey where rewilding involved “self-taught” or "trial and error" learning. Second generation tigers born in South Africa, were rewilded by: 1) learning survival skills from their mothers-“Natural Learning (NL)”, and 2) a combination of mother-teaching and NL without their mother’s accompaniment.
Components such as “Pavlov” training, prey species and their sizes, animal and human safety procedures, human habituation, veterinarian provisions, data collection/monitoring, treatment, and ethics are discussed in the rewilding guidelines.
Details of fencing structure, camps characteristics, prey species for hunting training and feeding, as well as monitoring sheets are also included in the rewilding guidelines.

Monday, 9 July 2012

Hunting-training Madonna’s Three Beautiful Daughters

Only two and half months passed but Madonna’s three little daughters have grown that much more. They are still as adorable as before but have gained a lot more confidence by now. Even the shyest of all, Zeta, ventures to come out and investigate me, albeit keeping a long distance between us.  Now I certainly don’t have to be worried that they would be too wild that we couldn’t help them in time of veterinary need, or that they would be too stressed from human presence causing potential death.

They are extremely inquisitive. Anything new or that moves will focus their attention. Vita, formerly named Xa, is the most daring, being always the first to approach the object, and trailed closely by Yoya. Zeta is still the shyest girl of all, preferring to keep a distance or hide inside the trees to observe.  Like any shy creatures, she needs mom the most, who certainly gives her  plenty more confidence. Mom Madonna seems to understand this, as each time Zeta is out of sight for too long, she goes in search of her, calling. And once united, Madonna would shower Zeta with chuffs, head rubs and sweet tender talk.

The little girls reached 7 months before we started giving them “ formal” hunting training. Of course they had been seen chasing the odd mongooses and birds from time to time and I am sure nature keeps them busy and entertained, out of the sight of us humans.  In the wild, tiger moms would bring her little cubs game to play with in order to slowly build their hunting abilities: a small deer or antelope, a bird, and etc.  Our tigresses do the same with their cubs.  By the time they reached 7 months, their body sizes have increased enough that bigger prey would no longer be a huge scare or threat to the cubs, and that they would also be more explorative and daring to approach the game, slowly discovering that it is actually their food or prey.

Initially, the cubs were terrified of a big creature like that of an antelope and would flee promptly. But they are observant and learn fast. Once they see how mom goes about making a hunt for them, they would imitate. A few days ago, when faced with a fair good sized antelope, Vita and Yoya put on their good performance, alternatively charming it by chuffing at it, or attack it head on. Even the shy Zeta joined in for the fun. They cornered the antelope to the fence but the antelope, smart by its own account, faced the cubs head on. Tigers normally attack by stalking and ambushing from behind. So when the prey faced the tiger, the tiger would be at a loss as to what to do, before coming up with a way to effectively tackle the prey.  I had seen that with Hope, JenB and Coco.

Vita sisters wouldn’t give up. She cautiously tried sneaking behind a bush to access the antelope’s flank. Yoya followed in her foot steps and tried from another side. But the antelope was a formidable opponent. I was worried the cubs would be too reckless and get injured in the process, so I was glad to see even Vita and Yoya still have their cautious side to them. In the end though it took mom Madonna to secure the meal for her family.  Once Madonna made the kill, she left her eager daughter Vita, who was imitating her, to drag the prey into the shade of the trees. With her mouth on the carcass’s neck, she toddled left and right..

Vita and Yoya were again leading the hunt today, but Zeta was too timid to come forward. I couldn’t see exactly what was going on due to the distance and the bushes  between us, but I could see the tree branches moving and the occasional orangy stripes flashing back & forth. The cubs were certainly trying their best to get close to their prey from every direction, but the antelope was no easy enemy either. Madonna who would normally finish the prey off to secure the meal certainly had a different plan today. After having taken a look of the situation, she decided to just leave her cubs to the job. Emboldened by mom’s presence in the vicinity however, Zeta joined the hunt.

The three little daughters put in a good show, jumping about and playing with the antelope as well as with one another.  After some time the antelope was finally pulled into the shallow water of the river bed. There the cubs had an advantage, even though they appeared to be a little bit tired. More commotion ensured and I could almost hear the water splashing in the distance. It took quite a long time, before I suddenly saw one of the cubs, I believe to be Vita, had her mouth on the neck of the antelope. And that, was a turning point for her, and worth a celebration! Vita didn’t let the antelope loose until she was certain it was dead. Then another one, most likely Yoya, took up the choking action, wrapping her little mouth around the neck of the antelope.

Research had shown that cats learn the fastest from their mother, second fastest from other cats, third from humans and last by figuring out themselves. We have good case of them learning from each other. I am confident Zeta will also catch up soon.

The three daughters will be nine months old in three days. They are certainly off for a good start!

Li Quan from Laohu Valley Reserve
6th July 2012

Friday, 6 July 2012

Tigers and Porcupines

There is clearly a love and hate relationship between tigers and porcupines. More than once I witnessed the tigers getting totally fascinated by these thorny little creatures, circling around them with both excitement and caution.  Aren’t they just funny things?? Their quills stick out and they make such pleasant noises too. I don't know what the tigers really think but each time when I saw them in the vicinity of a porcupine, I shudder.

Porcupines are deadly creatures. Their quills are such effective armour and weapon killers that penetrate deep into an enemy's body, causing a painful slow death. We once found a dead springbok with a couple of dozen porcupine quills sticking inside her belly and we could not even pull the quills out.

There is one female porcupine living near my house and some nights, I could hear her eating the barks on the tree, where my cat Sisi loved to stay before she disappeared. I am told that this tree may die sooner or later, due to the good work of the porcupine that has persistently, steadfastly and methodically been gnawing at its bark. Fortunately she couldn't reach very high so the tree should be able to stand longer. 

They are certainly cute creatures, or fascinating, as the tigers also found. The young ones are sweet little things. I once saw two of them with their mother crossing the dirty road in front of me. I was so tempted to go and picking them up, but of course that would be inviting trouble.

I had seen both Cathay and Hulooo at a porcupine at different times. They were all very cautious, never venture that close to get hurt. That “huahua” noise the quills make did seem to have a intimidating effect on the tigers so they always stayed at arm’s length.

However, two weeks ago, JenB was found with porcupine quills stuck in his neck and chest. What had happened between him and the porcupine was anyone’s guess. Most of the quills were gone by next day but two remained on him with the outside sections broken off. Joseph, our vet had to be called in to immobilize JenB and take the remaining parts of the quills out. This was the first time in nearly nine years that we had a porcupine related incidence.

But misfortunes never occur alone.

Yesterday I entered into the 40ha camp where Cathay and her daughter Huwaa and sons Alpha and Beta lodged. None of the tigers was in sight. Over the radio Vivienne informed me that she saw Huwaa chasing a porcupine in the riverine area. I didn’t like the sound of it but there was nothing I could do: I couldn’t see the tigers to distract them nor could I go catch the porcupine. After some time I started the engine of my truck to have a look and see. Not far from the river I saw a tiger licking herself. I couldn’t tell who that was so I looked through my binoculars. To my complete shock the big cat was covered in porcupine quills. Nothing scares me than seeing this!

I radioed our team to contact the vet and Vivienne joined me to have a closer look. It turned out to be Cathay. When she stood up I saw she not only had a number of quills on her chest, belly and leg, her face and legs were also covered with blood. Bloody Hell! Did she kill a porcupine? Why on earth would she do that? Taking such an enormousrisk attacking something that she was always cautious about?


We got her into the adjacent mini camp for monitoring to see how deep the quills got into her, and in case she needs to be sedated for us to remove the quills. Fortunately, none of the quills looked too deep inside her body so we decided to monitor her situation while waiting to hear back from the vet. By the end of the day, most of the 7 or 8 quills dropped off from her walking about. Cathay also didn’t seem disturbed by them and the two remaining quills didn’t look life threatening and may also drop off by themselves so we left her on her own for the night, with her children huddled on the other side of the fence.

Cathay had always been a cat with great motherly and protective instinct. She was also a fantastic but cautious hunter. To undertake such a reckless and dangerous act could only be due to her sense of responsibility as a mother. I could only deduce that Cathay must have intervened to kill the porcupine in order to protect her daughter Huwaa who was chasing it, for fear that her precious daughter might get injured. 

But how on earth did she kill the porcupine? That beast is full of lethal thorns which are known to kill those who dare to get too close. Perhaps Cathay flipped the creature over so she could get to its fragile belly? Whatever she did she proved her amazing ability to hunt, and even greater intelligence than one could have ever imagined.

By end of day today, only one quill remained. Hopefully it will drop off by itself so we don’t have to undertake the always worrisome process of sedation in order to remove the quill.

Li Quan from Laohu Valley Reserve
3rd July 2012