DALLAS (Reuters Life!) - Staring down the barrel of extinction, the planet’s tigers may have won a reprieve last week when Russia and China agreed with other Asian nations to double the world’s population of the big cats by 2022.
Just 3,200 tigers now live in the wild, down from 100,000 a century ago, and those that remain face a losing battle with poachers who supply traders in India and China with tiger parts for traditional medicines and purported aphrodisiacs.
In a remote corner of South Africa and far from their natural Asian range, a unique project is underway to save one subspecies of the iconic predator, the south China tiger.
This “rewilding” project — the brainchild of Chinese conservationist Li Quan — began in 2003 with a pair of cubs, brought to South Africa from Chinese zoos, which learned how to hunt and fend for themselves.
The initial pair bred and others have been brought in, with the idea that rewilded “South African” tigers may eventually be released into their natural Asian habitat.
A new photo documentary book, “Rewilded,” chronicles the project. Author Li Quan spoke to Reuters by phone about the project from her “tiger ranch” in South Africa.
Q: Why tigers? What prompted you to work for their conservation?
A: “The tiger itself is the most beautiful animal I believe in the world and it has a significant role in the ecosystem at the top of the food chain. And the tiger has played a big culture role in Chinese history. So we are not only saving the tiger itself but the entire ecosystem and also a Chinese cultural symbol.”
Q: Some experts claim the south China tiger, as a subspecies, is extinct. Your reaction?
A: “Some people do believe it is functionally extinct meaning that it cannot be found in the wild. However, the IUCN (World Conservation Union) cat specialty group, which makes extinction declarations, has so far not made such an announcement. And there have been no conclusive studies done to prove that it is extinct and we still have captive south China tigers left.”
Q: How many tigers do you have now and how are they doing?
A: “We have nine south China tigers on the reserve in South Africa and five are second generation born in South Africa that grew up here. They have all learned to hunt.”
Q: Do you think rewilding can be applied to other species?
A: “I certainly believe that what we have done here has great implications for other predators, particularly other big cats and this has also been stated by some of the top wild cat biologists in the world.”
Q: Do you have any other book projects in the pipeline?
A: “I anticipate that we will write another book that will chronicle the experiment and be more like a written narrative than a photo documentary.”