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- Laohu Valley
Hope was born on 17 February 2003 in a zoo in China. He was chosen as one of the lucky ones to be part of the rehabilitation project in South Africa. No more concrete and metal cages in his future, he would have the chance to again become a "wild tiger".
Together with the female Cathay, Hope arrived in South Africa in September in 2003 and after a period of quarantine at Pretoria Zoo, they started their wilderness training in a purposely set up facility. Here both him and Cathay experienced their first encounter with the African sun, sandy soil and other wild animals. At first, neither tiger would venture off the concrete slab and onto the sandy soil - proving how intensely their natural instincts had already been eroded.
Eventually they did venture into their camp and over a period of time encountered live prey and successfully hunted this prey. From the beginning, Hope seemed to be the weaker and more timid one. He had received treatment for ringworm and was once bitten by a baboon and had to be treated and stitched up. Cathay also seemed to be far more adventurous than Hope and in many cases she took the role of being his teacher. However, Hope was always the love craving tiger and also showered his affection on Cathay and his human custodians. He was also a very playful tiger and liked a few games of hide and seek .
After initial progress with their rehabilitation training, Hope and Cathay were moved into a much larger 62 hectare camp at Laohu Valley Reserve in the Free State (a purposely created reserve from 17 defunct sheep farms) on 8 September 2004. At first, they found the rough terrain and the rocky soil very difficult to get used to. Their paws were used to more sandy soil and they used to walk a few metres, sit down and lick their paws. Within a week they had, however adapted to the new environment. Due to the false and sensational criminal charges of the Trust by the NSPCA for cruelty to chickens, Cathay and Hope's rehabilitation training had actually stopped since December 2004 and therefore their true retraining to become wild tigers only began after they had moved into the 62 hectare camp at Laohu Valley Reserve.
Their first lesson was being given an entire blesbok carcass (a medium sized antelope) in October 2004. Neither Cathay nor Hope knew what this was and they did not associate it with food at all. In fact, when they poked and pulled at it and the head of the blesbok would flop around, both tigers got scared and ran away a few paces. It took them more than 24 hours to break the skin and realise that this was food. From then on they were only fed whole carcasses and they got very proficient at breaking the skin and eating the entire carcass in only a couple of hours.
In the 62 ha enclosure, Cathay and Hope now also had the luxury of a river flowing through it. They spent many afternoons lying or playing in the water. Whenever they spent a long period of time in the river, their paws were again very soft and they walked over the rocky terrain with caution.
During December 2005, blesbok were bought and placed into an adjacent camp next to Cathay and Hope. At regular intervals, two were caught and released into the tigers' 62 ha enclosure. The first releases were done where Cathay and Hope could see the blesbok being caught and released. Both tigers showed incredible speed and agility in catching the antelope. At first they found it difficult to give the final coup de grace, but with time they learnt how to deliver the final and fatal bite with ease.
In March 2005, more blesbok were caught but this time all the antelope were released into the 62 ha enclosure. The blesbok very soon learnt that there were predators present and became incredibly adept at avoiding the tigers. Cathay and Hope found this new behaviour of their prey perplexing and difficult to adapt to. They continued to try and run down the antelope as they had done in the past, but now the blesbok knew the enclosure and managed to get away from the tigers every time. It took the tigers many weeks to figure out that they did not have the speed to run down their prey and the cheetah style of hunting was no longer working. Eventually, Cathay was the first to start using better stalking techniques and also to vary the strategy used to catch the prey. Hope seemed to be a slower learner, and he continued to walk right up to the blesbok and then tried running them down. After watching Cathay, he also changed strategy. Interestingly enough, most of their kills over this period took place at night or before dawn - the time when wild predators would normally hunt.
Also during March 2005, both Cathay and Hope were fitted with radio tracking collars. This was in preparation for their release later this year into a 600 ha camp where spotting them will be much more difficult. During the fitting of the collars and while they were immobilised, Dr Richard Burroughs, a wildlife vet from Pretoria also had the chance to give them a thorough physical examination. He found them both in good health and he also investigated the amount of ticks they were carrying. This was a concern seeing that these tigers came from zoos in China and would not have had contact with parasites such as ticks. Dr Burroughs found that they had a number of ticks on them, but not an exorbitant amount and they had adapted well to carrying such parasites. As a precaution they were treated with an insecticide.
During April 2005, Cathay and Hope met up with porcupines for the first time. From time to time both Cathay and Hope were seen with quills sticking out of their faces. Luckily, the quills dropped out of their own accord and the tigers were none the worse for wear. During this time their faeces also showed quills indicating that the tigers had killed and eaten porcupines.
During July 2005, Cathay developed a fungal skin infection. She started showing patches where the hair had fallen out and bare skin could be seen. Now that they are hunting for themselves the staff have no direct contact with the tigers and because these tigers have grown wild they can definitely not be handled in any way. The vet was called in and it was decided that instead of immobilising the tigers, which is always risky due to the effects of the anaesthesia, a crush cage would be designed and built and hopefully Cathay will be caught in it and treated.
Within record-breaking time a cage was designed and built. Cathay was placed in the small 0.5 ha "treatment" camp with the crate and the staff started placing pieces of meat into the crate - luring her to enter. It took 8 days to get her to feed from the crate. Eventually, the trap door could be closed and the false side of the cage used to push her into a small area where the vet could take skin and hair samples. It was determined that it was a fungal infection
and that she would have to be treated with an anti-fungal spray every 4 days for two months. By now, Hope also started showing signs of having this skin infection, which is contagious. It took only two days to teach Hope to enter the cage and both tigers were treated, both with medication placed in their meat and with a skin spray.
Hope only entered the cage twice and thereafter was so scared of it that he would not even go near it, despite tasty morsels of meat being placed in the cage. Both tigers responded well to the treatment and within two weeks of being treated, Cathay's fur started growing back and the small patches on Hope healed and stopped spreading.
On 17 August, Hope lost his appetite and by the next day he seemed to be experiencing discomfort with his bowl movements. This was monitored closely and on the second day, a Vet was called out to the reserve, because a bloody discharge was noticed. Hope was immediately treated with antibiotics and painkillers and by Saturday morning, 20 August, seemed to be responding to the treatment. During Saturday afternoon, Hope's condition suddenly started deteriorating rapidly and despite professional veterinary care and being placed on a drip, he died early evening.
He was not the strongest, nor the bravest of tigers, but he was one of the pioneers of this ambitious rehabilitation programme. Cathay, his companion and mate, who looked after Hope during his sick days for the past two years will miss him most of all, but there seems to be an emptiness to Laohu Valley without Hope being there.