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The trials of a tiger mother

Updated: 2013-11-29 10:38
By Cecily Liu ( China Daily Africa)

In returning big cats to the wild, Quan Li has proven her critics wrong

Quan Li says she fell in love with tigers when she first saw them in a Beijing zoo as a girl, unaware that one day she would help save these tigers from extinction.

Quan, a former fashion executive who started a charity to help introduce South China Tigers back into the wild in 2000, has proven that rewilding tigers works, because the five animals she took from China to South Africa have now turned into 14.

Not only that, but Quan hopes to pass on her expertise to other people and organizations to help other endangered species.

"I was confident they would survive from the beginning, because tigers are very versatile," she says. "They adapt geographically to different habitats, because there are different tigers in different parts of Asia and they all come from the same ancestor."

The process of rewilding, which the Chinese government started in the late 1990s and Quan helped to develop and make international, teaches tigers hunting skills step by step by first feeding them carcasses of small game, and then live animals similar to those previously provided dead.

"Tigers spend up to 28 months in the wild with their mother to acquire the skills for survival," Quan says. "It's like humans having to learn how to read and write, so it is possible to help tigers regain these skills."

The story of Quan's rewilding project started in 1988, when she holidayed in Zambia, wanting to see wildlife in their habitat, and was inspired by the way local government conservation groups looked after animals.

Quan then contacted the Chinese government with the suggestion of helping to look after tigers the same way, and was told it was in fact starting a project to rewild South China tigers in Meihuashan, a conservation area in Fujian province.

At the time, China had a little more than 60 South China tigers, but they were breeding poorly and had health problems.

Quan persuaded the Chinese government to let her try her idea, but instead of Meihuashan, she chose South Africa because she felt the country offered better infrastructure and expertise for wildlife care.

"I said to the Chinese government that by working with South Africa, China would gain a different perspective; it would learn more about sustainability and sustainable management."

Quan was allowed to take zoo tigers to Laohu Valley Reserve in South Africa, a reserve Quan's team created from defunct sheep farms, for the purpose of rewilding the tigers. Laohu is the Chinese word for tiger.

Quan says rewilding has been challenging and rewarding for her.

She recalls a story of Madonna, a very shy tigress that she saved from dehydration and that became very close to her.

"Madonna was very weak and had a shy personality. For a shy tiger to be translocated from Beijing to South Africa was hard, because she could hurt herself, so I was very nervous at the beginning."

Madonna survived the journey, but in just a few days she became ill from dehydration because she never saw sunshine when she was in zoos, so she was unaware of the need to find shade.

"By the third day she was shaking and vomiting, and was very dehydrated. We called the vet, but the vet couldn't come immediately, and told us to feed the tiger water," she says.

As the local staff working at the Laohu Valley Reserve had no experience in interacting with tigers, they were scared about approaching Madonna to give her water, but the water bowl was too far away for Madonna to reach. Seeing the situation, Quan volunteered.

"Madonna was very weak, so I knew she wouldn't harm me. Even if she did, it would probably be just a few scratches."

After offering a bowl of water to Madonna, the tiger began drinking, and overnight she drank more and more. By the next morning she had recovered and was able to stand.

Quan says that because Madonna is very timid, she has always kept her distance from people, including her, but it all changed after that encounter.

"The next morning when I went to see her, she came to me. She rubbed her back against my legs and chuffed (a chuff is a tiger's greeting) at me. That was the most gratifying thing. It is like a child says "mama" for the first time.

From then on, Madonna and Quan became very close. Whenever Quan approaches the fence to Madonna's area, Madonna approaches the fence from her side and lies down next to the fence, and chuff at her.

When Quan walks along the fence, Madonna also walks along with her. After a walk, Madonna then goes to a quiet corner of the fence and lies down. Quan sits down opposite her and the pair spend some quiet time together.

Quan says that there were also many worrying moments in the project, and one big disaster was the death of one tiger, Hope, in 2005 from pneumonia and heart failure. Quan says her team never had the chance to discover the cause of Hope's illness because he died soon after the symptoms were discovered.

Quan says Hope's death put a lot of pressure on her because some people blamed her and said it proved the rewilding project would ultimately fail. For a moment, she says, she began to think she had been wrong.

"The worst is that I felt maybe the tigers didn't have hope because they are genetically so inbred."

But she pressed on and proved her critics wrong.

"I had no choice. I kept going. I had to."

In 2007, Huloo, the first second-generation tiger, was born, and was followed by another 10 cubs over the years.

Just as the project was enjoying great success, Quan encountered a big challenge. Her marriage was falling apart. Her husband, who worked with her to rewild the tigers and headed the charity, cut her off from it.

She later filed for divorce and is now fighting a court battle for what she says is her share of 50 million pounds (60 million euros) worth of assets in a Mauritius trust fund that she and her husband acquired during their relationship.

Quan says that she no longer has access to the tigers, and has become anxious about them. But she has taken comfort from the fact that the Chinese government has told her it will translocate all 14 tigers from South Africa to Meihuashan some time next year.

The tigers are now capable of living in the wild, so will be able to cope with Meihuashan's environment, she says. The Chinese government has chosen three potential habitats for them, in Jiangxi, Hunan and Hubei, where the tigers are expected to live permanently and then breed in the wild by themselves.

Meanwhile, Quan has established a new charity, called China Tiger Revival, which she says she will help fund with the settlement money from her divorce.

She says China Tiger Revival will not be rewilding South China tigers, as this step is already completed. Instead, it will focus on sharing the knowledge of tiger rewilding with other organizations so they can use the method to help save other animals.

Quan says she looks forward to building her new charity but will miss the interaction she used to have with individual tigers, and the tigers she once helped, as she sees them as her children.

"They are tender and ferocious at the same time; they're the fastest and most versatile; they are nature's perfection."


 The trials of a tiger mother

Quan Li sees all the tigers she helped as her children. Provided to China Daily

(China Daily Africa Weekly 11/29/2013 page29)

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