Tigers in Africa seems a fanciful thought…but they are there! Though they do not roam completely free in the wilderness, the South China Tiger can be found in carefully managed, large wildland areas in South Africa, the subject of an ambitious effort to rescue it from extinction. The 33,000ha (82,000 acre) LaohuValley Reserve is the centerpiece of Save China’s Tigers experimental bid to breed the South China Tiger and eventually return it to its natural habitat.
This effort has generated significant controversy, so I went there in January to better understand what it is doing and to determine its role in the broad spectrum of conservation work occurring around the globe. I found a valid initiative, doing good work, and fighting two battles simultaneously: one to save a tiger (arguably a sub-species), and (as if that were not enough) another to defend itself against the (sometimes) seemingly endless internal sniping of the nature conservation world. Who needs enemies when fellow conservationists often serve that function?!
I encourage you to go to the SCT website to see details. They’re making progress. I’ll just briefly give my response to some of the “sniping” I’ve heard from other groups and conservationists.
1. Tigers don’t belong in Africa. Why start a breeding facility there, almost halfway around the world from their home range?
The historically-proven and commonsense strategy to save a very small remnant population is to create geographically-separated gene pools, or small groups of the survivors, in order to protect them from potential threats such as disease, human pressure, etc. If they breed successfully, and there are adequate wild reserves in their homeland, hopefully they can be returned.
This is exactly the model established by Ian Player, WILD’s founder, when he saved the white rhino from extinction by exporting it to Europe and the US. It recovered from being virtually the most endangered rhinoceros species in the 1960’s to today being the most viable.
2. Why spend all that money on a species that is almost finished?
It’s better to direct the funds to other programs trying to protect the tiger species still in the wild. Conservationists are always squabbling over the “conservation funding pie” — and tigers are the most political and financially-oriented of all such squabbles. Save China’s Tigers have done something admirable and unusual—they created a new financial vehicle to raise the vast majority of the $20 million they have spent thus far. They increased the conservation funding pie, not decreased or redirected it.
3. SCT’s founder and main spokesperson, Li Quan, is not a scientist or “professional conservationist,” and she needs to leave this work to the big, established groups.
This is the silliest of all the criticisms I’ve heard. Firstly, the “big established groups” are trying to do their best, but the tiger populations continue to crash. More help is needed. Second, Li Quan is a dedicated volunteer and entrepreneur, committing her spirit, income, and energy to save a species (and, if I am any judge of character, she will likely do even more in the years to come). That’s what we need — more personal responsibility, commitment, thinking outside the box, and action. Third, SCT is more than Li Quan, obviously. They are well-advised scientifically and on conservation management.
This silly criticism reminds me of what many PhD scientists said amongst themselves 25 years ago when Laurie Marker (at that time a self-trained cheetah keeper in a drive-through safari park in southern Oregon) decided she would keep the main cheetah breeding book (“the stud book”). Today Dr. Marker runs the Cheetah Conservation Fund, the most successful field project in the world to save a species, and is a formidable conservation pioneer who continues to think outside the box and get results.
4. Why work with the Chinese government?
Surely the Chinese government is not perfect on conservation—but please name a government that is? Nevertheless, the Chinese are trying, and have even garnered good recent reviews from Traffic on their call for better protection of the wild tiger and its habitat, and the decision by World Federation of Chinese Medicine Societies (WFCMS) to ban use of tiger bones and all wildlife parts. SCT has forged an agreement from the Chinese government to create several new wilderness reserves for the tiger, initially two totaling 30,000 ha (75,000 acres), and eventually with more areas set aside as part of a large, long-term strategy. This of course combines with the 33,000 ha (82,000 acres) they bought and manage privately in South Africa. Saving wild habitat is REAL conservation.
The work of SCT is emblematic of a larger issue. The condition of our wild world is far less than good. The reality is that human impacts and actions over many decades now force us sometimes into the choice between taking no action for wild nature (in this case the South China Tiger), or taking an experimental, less-than-perfect choice.
My colleague, brother, and Bengal tiger advocate Bittu Sahgal, of Sanctuary Asia, put it very succinctly to me the other day: “China needs to ensure that an inviolate forest of at least 500 sq km is set aside for the return of these near-extinct tigers. Re-wilding tigers is at best difficult, and maybe not possible. We actually don’t know. These days, we are forced by the impact of human society into a position where we have no choice but to proceed. No action is not a choice.”
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