Making The World Aware of the Plight of the World's Greatest Cats and Their Fight to Prevent Extinction
By Ed Stoddard
LAOHU VALLEY RESERVE, South Africa (Reuters) - The big cat does not look out of place as it strides across the arid landscape, tail twitching and muscles rippling.
But this is a remote corner of Africa and the animal is an Asian "import" -- a rare South China tiger.
Born in a Chinese zoo and named "Hope", he was brought to South Africa as a cub with his mate "Cathay" for a groundbreaking experiment that may be the last chance to save the species from extinction -- a "rewilding programme" aimed at encouraging the animals to hunt on their own.
The ultimate goal is for them to breed and impart their hunting skills to their offspring -- who will be then be sent to a reserve in China.
"We are giving them the opportunity to develop their survival skills," said biologist Gus van Dyk, who developed the "rewilding strategy."
"I am confident it can work. If you look at how domestic cats hunt for birds you see that it is instinctive," he said.
With only about 10 to 30 left in the wild and another 60 in captivity, the Chinese sub-species of the tiger clan is perched precariously on the brink of oblivion.
All five tiger sub-species, including the Bengals of India and the huge Siberians of Russia's far east, are highly endangered.
Feared as man-eaters but revered as majestic symbols of the wild, there are only a few thousand of the striped cats left in Asia, where they are being squeezed out by habitat loss in the face of swelling human populations.
Hence the decision to bring some to the land of the lion.
Now two years old, Hope and Cathay began hunting birds but have moved onto bigger prey.
They are now successfully killing blesbok, a white-faced African antelope that is similar in size to the deer species the tigers would encounter in the wild in China.
The odds are stacked in the tigers' favour at the moment as they are in a 62-hectare enclosure, into which the unsuspecting blesbok are periodically released.
They will soon be moved to a 600 hectare camp where they will have to work harder for their meals and where they will encounter a bigger variety of game, including wildebeest.
STRONG AND HEALTHY
In preparation for that move, the cats were recently tranquilised and fitted with collars with radio tracking devices.
They were also examined by a vet who declared them to be healthy and strong. Hope weighs around 90 kg and could grow to 120 kg or so.
This is small compared to other members of the tiger group but he looks no less intimidating.
"In the bigger area we will need to monitor their movements with the collars as it is very hilly," said Li Quan, the founder of the "Save China's Tigers" foundation and the driving force behind the rewilding effort.
The entire preserve -- known as the Laohu Valley Reserve -- is a huge 33,000 hectares and is comprised of 17 former sheep farms tucked in a dry and dusty corner of South Africa's Free State province.
Its fairly open and rocky landscape differs markedly from the forested reserves where the animals will probably be sent to in China.
But if they can hunt in open spaces then experts say they should find it even easier to stalk their prey in thick bush.
Laohu means "old tiger" in Chinese but the reserve only has young ones at the moment.
Another breeding pair, Madonna and Tiger Woods, arrived in October last year. Both are around a year old and are in the early stages of their "rewilding" programme.
Every few days they are fed a freshly shot springbok -- a small antelope abundant in the area -- which the male eagerly grabs by the neck, wrenching it from his keeper's hands.
"It is revealing that they instinctively know to go for the neck," said Quan.
The entire experiment may ultimately not work. But as Tiger Woods tears into the springbok, his mouth crimson with blood, he looks to have all the makings of a natural-born killer.
Swati Thiyagarajan, Manadkini Malla
Wednesday, December 6, 2006 (Ranthambhor):
While the endangered tigers are still in trouble across the country, at least in Ranthambhor they have received a new lease of life.
Sariska came as a wake up call to the country, which had started taking its national animal for granted. It broke the Project Tiger myth that all was well with India's tigers.
Thereafter, attention quickly turned to Ranthambhor. A new count has now revealed that there were 26 tigers in the park and not 40 as had been the claim.
There was no question that some tigers had been poached but Ranthambhor, unlike many other project tiger parks, decided to fight back.
The forest department stepped up patrolling, set up check posts inside the park, worked with local people in the periphery and ensured that the parks habitat flourished by restricting grazing by cattle and recharging ground water.
Ten new cubs
Clearly their dedication has paid off. In just the last year, Ranthambhor has had a bonanza of ten new cubs, and the park has never looked this good.
A dry deciduous stretch of forests across the Aravallis and a part of the Vindhyas, Ranthambhor is flush with Sambar and Nilgai and Cheetal and wild boar - all essentials on the tiger's menu.
The park was also lucky that in the bad years, they only lost some of their sub-adults and not their dominant males who are the key to their breeding success.
The two sub-adults that NDTV's team followed were cubs of a female's previous litter.
In fact, she came to pay them a visit to scare them out of her territory to protect her present cubs from the sub-adult male.
Male tigers are notorious for killing cubs that are not their own, which is why it is so important to a cub's survival to have his father stay alive as the dominant male in an area.
The next day NDTV' team found both the sub-adults in another area of the park, having taken their mother's warning seriously.
Tigers are essentially solitary animals and they leave their mothers after about two years. Cubs tend to stay together for a few months more before they go their separate ways.
The challenge now for the park will be to protect the sub-adult males who might come into confrontation with the dominant male of the area and be pushed out in the periphery.
Proper monitoring needed
The loss of forest and natural biological corridors means that the tiger has a small chance of survival outside the park without protection and monitoring.
This gets difficult as the forest department is understaffed and they are working against some overwhelming odds like lack of equipment, not enough jeeps and wirelesses, no guns to fight poaching threats and no incentives from the government either in terms of adequate pay or more staff.
Our forest officers who protect some of the greatest national resources and treasures do not even enjoy the same status as the police.
One way to help with funds for the required equipment and money needed for salaries and camps would be to increase the entry fee into the park and ensure that the gate receipts go right back to the park and not to the government.
"It is an amazing park and they can certainly increase the entry fee which is now only four dollars. In Africa, people pay up to $350 to see to mountain gorilla that is as important biologically as the tiger," said Russel Mittermeier, President, Conservation International.
However, for now, all is well with Ranthambhor proving that dedication and effort can and will help save the tiger.
Disclaimer:The opinions expressed in this or any of our columns represent the opinions of the writers, and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Magic Web Channel or it's Esteemed Panel of Magic Advisors. (The lawyers made us say that.)
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