From The Vaults: The Hunger Games With Tigers

Here’s an article I wrote way back in 2015 about a controversial tiger project – with a ridiculously dramatic update about the situation!

A 2015 scientific study on the world’s rarest sub-species of tiger, the South China Tiger (Panthera tigris amoyensis) may offer a glimmer of hope for captive bred carnivores, however the project has attracted some high profile criticism, and for good reason.

Last seen in the wild in 1970, it is likely that the South China tiger is extinct in the wild despite being listed as critically endangered. Currently 100 remain in captivity and can all be traced back to just six individuals, however an ambitious and highly criticised project spearheaded by the Save China’s Tigers charity has attempted to teach these tigers how to be wild again, in a project that can only be described as ‘The Hunger Games with tigers.’ Save China’s Tigers is a British based charity ran by banker, Stuart Bray and wife Li Quan.

If you are unfamiliar with the premise of the dystopian novel turned blockbuster movie ‘The Hunger Games’ the general theme centres around selected children who are transported from their homes, fitted with explosive devices and entered into a brutal arena of survival whilst their every move is monitored by their captors. Now if you were to replace children with tigers, captors with scientists and explosive devices with GPS collars, you will end up with the outline for this study; which has attempted to teach captive tigers how to hunt live prey in South Africa, some 12,000km away from their native habitat.

The project began in the mid-2000s when tigers were brought from China to South Africa’s 127 square mile Laohu Valley Reserve to embark on the special ‘re-wilding’ program, which allows the tigers to roam around the large reserve as opposed to being confined to a small zoo enclosure. It is noted on Save China’s Tigers website that prior to being relocated to South Africa, the tigers did not recognise a carcass as food. As they became more affiliated with a wild environment these ‘re-wilded’ tigers would go on to breed with one another to provide young tigers for our hunger games study, which ultimately aimed to gauge whether the young tigers could learn to capture live prey at a frequency high enough for survival in the wild.

Starting in October 2012, the offspring from the above mentioned mentioned ‘re-wilded’ tigers and other young tigers with non re-wilded parents from China (for comparison and to increase sample size) were fitted with GPS collars and relocated to two specialised 100-ha enclosures, about twice the size as the average farm in England.

These specialised enclosures were stocked with South African species that might resemble the tigers natural prey items, for example the blesbuck (a type of South African antelope) was used as a substitute for Sika dear, which would likely be a staple food item if these tigers were still roaming the forests of South China. Over the next two years the tigers were released into these enclosures for 20 to 31 days at a time and their movements and prey capture ability intensively monitored. You may be beginning to wonder whether using the South African countryside as the location for this study instead of the tigers native forests was a wise move, if so you are in good company.

A tiger in a lion’s world at the Laohu Valley Reserve

Speaking with Reuters in 2011, Susan Lieberman former director of the Global Species Programme at the animal conservation group, WWF International states that the money sunk into this project would be better spent on existing tigers on the Russia-China border. Lieberman had previously said that ‘even if the tigers were taught to hunt amid the parched grasslands of Free State province, that would not make them wild.’ 

This sentiment was echoed by Sarel van der Merwe, chairman of the African Lion Working Group who said ‘It would be much wiser for them to prepare a natural habitat for them in their home range in south China. Were true tiger experts consulted?’ This is a good question, as in 2011 one of the tigers broke into a neighbouring enclosure and was killed by a younger tiger.

Even if the tigers were taught to hunt amid the parched grasslands of Free State province, that would not make them wild – Susan Lieberman

So why did they decide to undertake this project in South Africa and not South China? The charity’s website claims that the main reason was that South Africa provided a cheap alternative but it is likely that lack of habitat in South China and public unwillingness is another reason, this study from 2014 on South China tiger reintroduction potential comes to the conclusion that ”limited habitat, insufficient prey base, and too many people will constrain reintroduction efforts.” The extent to which the tigers are inbred is also an issue that’s been raised in the past and would severely hamper reintroduction attempts.

Despite the high profile criticism the study is now complete, so did our tigers learn to hunt? And will this improve the species chance for survival in the wild? In short, yes and no. Many of the young tigers did indeed learn to hunt, showing that even after several generations in captivity lineages of tigers can still retain their killer instinct, furthermore they weren’t picky about what they caught, devouring several species other than the plentiful blesbuck including, aardvark, aardwolf, leopard tortoise, baboon and more (which raises some ethical issues about this study). Researchers also found that some individuals were better hunters than others and claimed that this factor may be important to consider in future big cat reintroduction efforts. Due to a small sample size (12 tigers) they couldn’t make a statistically solid case for tigers with re-wilded parents being better hunters than tigers with zoo parents, however the initial evidence does support this claim. Despite the habitat differences the authors of the study remain optimistic claiming that if the tigers could catch prey in South Africa they could similarly catch prey in South China.

we are left with a project that has shown how captive bred tigers can hunt in a foreign habitat, which may or may not benefit them in a theoretical reintroduction into a native habitat that doesn’t exist

The Save China¿s Tigers charity was supported by celebrities including martial arts star Jackie Chan (pictured), actress Michelle Yeoh and businessman David Tang
Jackie Chan was one of the many supporters of the scheme

This conclusion was the best case scenario for the study and yet it still feels incredibly hard to justify given the enormous amount of time and expenditure that has gone into it, it may be useful to know that captive tigers can hunt live prey but surely a much better endeavour would of been to bolster the existing tigers on the China-Russia border as suggested by the WWF’s Susan Lieberman, or to try and establish a suitably sized patch of forest in South China. Instead we are left with a project that has shown that captive bred tigers can hunt in a foreign habitat, which may or may not benefit them in a theoretical reintroduction into a native habitat that doesn’t exist.

The study was completed by researchers from the University of Pretoria and published online in Biological Conservation on the 24th of September 2015.

Here is the – extremely dramatic – update on the project: In 2016, after I wrote the above article, a keeper at the reserve was tragically killed by a tiger, the tiger – ‘Beta’- was put down as a result. Since then – the owners of the charity, Stuart Bray and Li Quan have been embroiled in a dramatic and bitter divorce, with Li claiming the tiger charity was set up as a way to hide his money however this claim was thrown out by the UK Courts. Save China’s Tigers is now under new management – there are no new updates on the charity’s site regarding the actual tigers. Maybe its time for the project to go extinct.

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