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The vision: Chinese tiger conservation model: Chinese tiger pilot reserve - a home for the Chinese tigers -

“I commend and applaud your efforts to conserve the South China Tiger. I do believe that there is a chance to save the tiger in the wild areas of China. With the determination and commitment that was demonstrated in constructing the Great Wall centuries ago I do believe that conserving the tiger in the wild can be accomplished with a similar determination, commitment, and perhaps new strategies in conservation. Such a conservation success would be as profound a legacy as the Great Wall, one that not only the people of China but all mankind could be proud of.”

– Dr. Gary Koehler, from his letter of 4 Dec. 2000 on China’s Chinese Tiger Initiative.

Based on successful wildlife conservation models observed in Africa, such as for the leopard, lion and cheetah and the supportive tourism infrastructure established to fund and implement these conservation efforts, we established the Chinese Tiger Conservation Model.

Our plan sees reserves in China whose developments are based on principles of Africa’s reserves. It would combine the unique resources of wildlife from China using the Chinese Tiger as the umbrella and draw, with the unique cultural resources of China, not present in Africa but abundant in China, to compete both domestically and internationally for tourist money. This will then be funneled back into the reserve, community development and other wildlife conservation projects. Making moderate use of wildlife resources will help make conservation sustainable long term, and the reserve will allow wildlife, which has up to now been under single species protection programs, rejoin Nature and co-exist harmoniously in the wild, thereby safeguarding the entire eco-system.

To accomplish this, we need to do the following:
1. Maintaining or developing a genetically sound population of captive tigers,
2. Protecting enough habitat - especially grasslands and forests that support a substantial prey base of muntjacs, serow, and wild boar,
3. Returning captive trained tigers to that habitat &
4. Educating and engaging local people in ways that will insure that they support the project and even stand to gain from it in certain economic ways.

What is the home of tigers like?

The intention of this proposed project is to restore habitat and protect the whole ecological chain by using the Chinese tiger as the flagship.

In their wild home the animals live free, without human intervention, fending for themselves. They interact with each other, fighting for food, territory and mating rights. Speed and agility are of the essence – whether the animal is hunting or fleeing. This project will also help solve the problems currently faced by single species protection programs. In a deer reserve, in order to protect spotted deer, the reserve managers had no choice but to trap the red dholes that preyed on the spotted deer. In our Chinese Tiger project, however, the tigers will control the dhole's numbers. All things interact on the planet and they cannot be isolated. A place where wildlife interacts naturally will require less effort on the part of humans in order to function better.

Many of the problems with the conservation of tigers, and other animals, in China, were related to the structure of the nature reserves. So many reserves were set up in the 1990’s, without enough qualified personnel to manage them, and a lack of an alternative livelihood for the people living in and outside the reserves. It is no wonder that they often do not co-operate with the wildlife protection laws but continue to make a living as they did before – eat the mountain when living in the mountain and eat the water if living by the water.

Why use the Chinese tiger as the emblem?

We summarize our effort as “Three Tigers”: Spiritual Tiger, Cultural Tiger and Ecological Tiger.
We save the Chinese Tiger, also known as the South China Tiger, not only because it is the most endangered subspecies of tigers. The Chinese tiger is the direct descendent of the ancestral tiger, which originated in China 2 million years ago. Yet, less than 100 Chinese tigers are left in the world, and 60 of them are in captivity. If we do not act now, they are likely to become extinct. This is their last chance for survival and our last chance to save them. More importantly, the Chinese tiger has profound spiritual, cultural, and ecological significance.

Spiritual Tiger: First of all, throughout Chinese history, the tiger has incited in us a sense of both awe and admiration: its prowess, its ferocity, its beauty and harmony of the opposites. The tiger is full of life and embodies the spirit and drive to achieve and make progress. No other animal holds more fascination than the tiger.

Cultural Tiger: Secondly, the Chinese tiger is historically a major cultural symbol. No other animal inspired more imagination, stories, paintings, poetry than the tiger. The earliest tiger statue was found in the Neolithic period in China 7000 years ago; The Year of the Tiger, tiger shoes & hats; the Tiger seal, Tiger Tally and Tiger General; The idioms and poetic renderings such as: Tiger roaring & dragon singing-the world is peaceful; Mountain and Valley replying- the people are wealthy and the country strong.

Ecological Tiger: It is also an Ecological & Environmental Tiger. Being at the top of the food chain, the Chinese tiger is an umbrella species and in saving the Chinese Tiger, many other plants and wildlife throughout the entire eco-system can be restored and saved. With increased human encroachment, the habitats of animals are becoming increasingly reduced. The negative impact on humans is immense, for the decline of wildlife population is synonymous with the deterioration of our nature, from which we humans also sprung.

To summarize: it demonstrates that China is committed to saving the eco-system through a fierce determination to take on such a difficult task as restoring the most endangered Chinese Tiger. It shows that China is interested in more than just progress in technology and modernization but in the future of the planet. It will also tell those who do not yet know about China’s effort in wildlife conservation, that China is continuing on the right track. The world can join in this achievement too by encouraging, helping and supporting China in its positive and enthusiastic effort.

In other words, through conservation of the Chinese Tigers, we hope to restore habitats and other wildlife, promote Chinese culture and redevelop the Chinese tiger spirit, as well as bridge understanding between China and others.

What does it take to build the new home?

As we are talking about giving the tigers back their original habitat, it is not a simple matter of several acres of land. The range of one tiger in the wild extends from 15 square kilometres to over 100 square kilometres. This depends on prey density – that is, the availability of food that tigers eat. In China, wild boar and deer of all kind are to tigers what rice, grain and pig are for us Chinese. The prey density in China used to be very high – that is why there were still around 100,000 tigers at the beginning of 1900.

Therefore, to save the Chinese Tiger, we need to make sure they prosper into a population with enough genetic diversity to ensure adaptability to ecological changes and resistance to disease. When we have at least 100 tigers living in several populations, we can be sure their fate is on the way to being reverted. To support one population, more than 150 to 200 square kilometres of land may be needed. This obviously depends on the density of prey which in turn is a factor of habitat quality, but tigers do need large areas. For example, a tiger population in SE China may not need a very large area if there is plenty of prey species and the habitat is good, but on the other hand they may need larger areas than reported from other studies - it is unknown.

You may say – the tigers need a lot of land! Yes, the tiger is a large carnivore and eats a lot. It does take a lot of land. That is why the Chinese Tiger Conservation Model is proposed. Tourists will pay a lot to see how tigers and other animals live and interact, and the tigers will be making money to support themselves and the people living around them. Tourists will go back again and again because each time, the experience is different. Yet it is not enough to just allocate the land to them. It has to be land where it is not too difficult for us to drive a jeep around. Without a vehicle, you cannot escape easily from potentially dangerous situations if you have restricted access to many parts of the land because the terrain is too difficult, then your chances of seeing a tiger is remote and you will not come back again. You will also tell you friends not to bother. Even in India, where the density of tiger population is highest in the world, you may still not see a tiger in the reserve even if you go for a week. Even though we can introduce the best game reserve management in the world from South Africa, who has the most advanced techniques to ensure that tourists can see a leopard in a matter of three days’ stay in a reserve, and this technique would be applied to the Chinese Tigers, you will still have a hard time to see a tiger if you cannot access the land in some way or the other.

After the appropriate land is allocated, we will need to restore the land. Like humans, wildlife needs water, grass, trees, and so on. This is a perfect opportunity to restore what was lost or damaged by human activities. Through the restoration process, we are rebuilding our eco-system, which in turn is good for human beings’ existence.

When the land is ready with abundant food and water, ungulate and bird species can be restored. They will prosper quickly without human disturbance.

When there are enough prey animals, carnivores can be brought into the new home - dholes, bears, leopards, and Chinese tigers.

Where do we find Chinese tigers to put into their new home?

There are few if any tigers left in the wild, so where do we find tigers to put into their new Home?

We get our tigers from those held in captivity. Currently, there are around 100 Chinese tigers left, spread around different Chinese zoos. We have taken tiger cubs from these zoos and rehabilitated them to hunt and live by themselves and eventually reintroduce them into the wild - their new home.

You may ask: If we take tigers away from zoos, there will not be enough Chinese tigers left for zoos. In time, there will be fewer and fewer Chinese Tigers in zoos. What if they die during training or in the wild? Wouldn’t that make them become extinct as well? As it now stands, all the Chinese tigers in Chinese zoos are descended from 6 founding members, wild caught in the 1950’s. Scientists are still unsure as to how genetics really work – six individuals could have more genetic variability than the whole wild population, but it could be also the opposite. So as it stands, there are just a lot that we cannot answer. Apart from proper management of the remaining populations, we can work on alternative solutions to increase their chances of survival. The Chinese tigers are likely to go extinct anyway unless drastic action is taken.

How to rewild tigers so they can live in the wild again?

We can only return captive tigers to the wild from second generation onwards. So it will take at least five to six years before Chinese Tigers can be returned home to the wild.

According to Swiss scientists Urs and Christine Breitenmoser who have worked many years with Eurasian Lynx, a cat’s behaviour depends on three factors: genetic embedding, individual learning, and tradition. For example, a cat is born to hunt. But if it lost its mother before it learns to hunt from her, it would not know how to hunt effectively and will perish in the wild without its mother as a coach. Some cats learn to hunt better than others, depending on their learning abilities.

Tigers must start their rewilding training when they are young. This is the stage where they are young enough to learn new things. In the wild, tigers learn everything, particularly how to hunt, from their mothers. But we do not have that luxury when we take them out of zoos. Therefore, we would have to design different ways of letting them regain their hunting abilities.

Like a domestic cat that dashes after any moving object, a tiger would do the same instinctively. However, simply chasing after anything moving in the wild without ensuring a good chance of success will wear the tiger out, and futile attempts like this can eventually lead to his death from starvation. That is where humans come in. The humans can use different methods to coach the tigers to learn that the toy they have played or killed is actually their food. The tigers must also learn to hunt appropriate prey animals. Errors of judgment, such as hunting something too large while the tiger is too small or unskilled, can result in serious injuries and lead to death from an inability to hunt and feed in the wild.

Some people say that cats are inherent hunters and do not need to be taught. Of course, some cats are naturally able hunters. From his experience with orphaned pumas, Dr. Koehler said that out of the three orphaned pumas he released into the wild one survived while the other two died. That is, 33% of the cats that have not learned to hunt from their mothers or from a rehabilitation project, can survive according to this statistic. The others, unfortunately, do not possess the skills to hunt and starve to death.

If we had enough zoo-born Chinese tiger cubs to take this risk, we could skip the rewilding work and just put them into a wild environment, hoping one fourth or one third of them would survive, but we do not have that luxury. There are less than sixty of them left. We cannot take any chances. We must make sure that every single Chinese Tiger survives.

When can a tiger be reintroduced into the wild?

As we have described, to rewild a tiger, there may be some human intervention in some methods. Therefore, the tiger may regard the human as his friend and would not consider them a threat. As in cases we have experienced, he would be friendly to humans. In order to protect both tiger and human you may not be able to return a first generation zoo-born tiger to the wild, even if it has gained an ability to hunt and live in the wild. Only tigers who have learned skills from their mothers or who have an inherent fear of humans can be returned to the wild.

Where will the Chinese Tigers be Rewilded?

In 1998, the people of Longyan City in Fujian province started their heroic program of breeding and rehabilitating the Chinese Tigers, in an effort to restore the Chinese tiger to Meihuashan. Tigers are now at Meihuashan Chinese Tiger Breeding and Rehabilitation Centre. The local people and government have sacrificed a lot for the tigers and huge progress has been made in the first stage of the project. This first step Meihuashan Rehab Centre took is significant in saving the Chinese Tigers. However, we may be lacking in methodology and experience due to China's inadequate facilities and availability of land to work with. China has very little space for training tigers and the job requires a huge area of land.

In order to increase the chance of success, Save China’s Tigers proposed to the SFA to begin rewilding training for the Chinese Tiger in South Africa.

Why on earth South Africa? Africa does not even have tigers.

There are several reasons that we suggested South Africa. First, as we discussed earlier, for tigers to live naturally, they need at least 15 square kilometres of land. It is very hard to get 15 square meters of land for ONE tiger in China immediately, not to mention a population of several tigers. However in Africa, we have been able to purchase over 300 square kilometres of defunct farm land at a relatively low price compared to China.

Also, we can use wild prey animals in Africa for training because wild animals don't lose their instinct, so they run very fast. Take antelope in Africa as an example. It runs so fast that many big cats just can't catch up with them using speed alone. They have to catch the antelope using their brain. Only tigers trained this way will ensure a level of fitness suitable for a successful return to the wild.

Secondly, because of the small space in zoos in general, a change of environment would improve the tigers’ health. An outdoor athletic tiger will be healthier and more productive than one kept in a cage.

Thirdly, in South Africa, they have worked with wildlife for many years and are experienced in reintroducing big cats. They have completed successful trials with the wild training of tigers in the past few years and their skills can be applied to Chinese Tigers.
Fourthly, while the Chinese tigers are being wild trained, we will use South African experts to train conservation officers from Chinese Nature Reserves and to instruct Chinese managers in eco-tourism management. This will help us improve the quality of reserve management, and prepare us for high quality wildlife eco-tourism in China.

Last but not least, Save China’s Tigers has endeavoured to help China set up a Pilot Reserve, based on the successful principles of African wildlife reserves. This will be the New Home for the Chinese Tigers, after they are wild trained and have gained ability to survive in wild conditions. All the knowledge and skills acquired by our officers and managers can now be used in this Chinese Tiger Pilot Reserve.

Would Chinese tigers adapt to the environment in South Africa? Would they re-adapt to China’s environment?

The tigers are among the most adaptable animals on the planet. They can tolerate temperatures from – 35°C to 48°C . They live in a range of habitats from very dry to tropical forests. As long as they have water to drink, food to eat, and cover to hunt by, they will survive. We also know that there are a lot of tigers living at people’s ranches in Texas, USA and in zoos all around the world. Some tigers endure extremely miserable conditions in captivity as in some circuses and some zoos. What we are saying is, the tiger is extremely adaptable to different environment that we do not have to worry about them going either to South Africa, or returning back home to China. Further, it is the hunting skills we want them to hone. Once they have the hunting skills, they will be able to apply to different preys in different environment.

What happens in China while the tigers are being wild trained?

The conservation authorities in China will work with all levels of government and people to look for a new home or several new homes for the Chinese Tigers. Proposed sites will be surveyed to make sure that not too many people have to give up their homes for creating such a home for the Chinese Tigers, and that all necessary conditions are met to satisfy both the requirement of the returning tigers and other wildlife, as well as future visitors, who will enjoy their majestic beauty in their natural environment.

We have set up a top notch expert team. After the site is chosen, many more experts will be involved to begin restoration work, so that trees and grass will grow back and water levels will rise. Then, ungulates such as wild boar and deer will be brought back - and birds, and then other carnivores such as bears and leopards, and then the home-coming of the Chinese Tiger.
What if our effort fails?

The fact that even a couple of wild tigers exist is enough to justify our cause. As you have read by now, tigers are at top of the food chain - saving tigers will also help save all the other animals interlinked with each other in the same food chain. Preserving and protecting the tigers’ habitat is actually creating a favourable condition for all wild flora and fauna. Establishing reserves in areas where traces of South China Tigers are still found will protect bears, leopards, wild pigs, antelopes and wild goats at the same time. Even if our efforts ultimately fail to save the Chinese Tigers, what we can save in the process is the ecological chain so vital to human beings.

What is the significance of this Chinese tiger project?

Inside China, the Chinese Tiger campaign is playing an increasingly important role in China’s conservation effort. The Chinese Tiger campaign will make a big impact in changing the Chinese perception of conservation and wildlife, even society in general and make ordinary Chinese gain a deeper understanding of the significance of saving not only the tiger, but all wildlife, and make them see and appreciate the beauty of nature, which could disappear completely if nothing is done about it. It will change the approach to conservation in China and change the perception of nature by the Chinese, who in modern times, have such little interaction with wildlife (why would they want to save them?!). They must see with their own eyes the beauty of a hunting tiger to want to help save such wonders. The Chinese tiger’s significance, other than its physical beauty, will be illuminated more in his role as an Environmental Tiger, a Cultural Tiger and a Political (China’s determination for environmental protection) Tiger.

Internationally, despite much money and publicity paid toward conservation of tigers by governments and conservation organizations, it has met with limited success and tiger populations around the world are still in peril. If we are to confront the real and potential threats to tiger existence then we need to explore new and alternative approaches to conservation; including some untried approaches and approaches that focus on the "economic" incentives for local people to take a vested interest in tiger conservation, and that is where they can see how conservation of tigers will benefit them "monetarily, spiritually, and culturally". For the Chinese Tiger the time is critical to act now, for they won’t survive many more years without immediate action. Here is where we need to test and develop a new approach to conservation; a new approach that may be the template for many more future conservation approaches as our populations grow and human dominion continues to wield its influence on the planet. This is the first ever experiment by any country, to attempt to save a large carnivore by re-introducing them into the wild. It is a daring and heroic experiment. Its success will have a profound impact on international conservation and should set precedence for zoos throughout the world.

What else are we doing for the Chinese tigers?

The New Home Project is just one of many efforts we are taking to save the Chinese Tigers, and possibly an intermediate stage. We are still working in other areas, especially for the protection of wild Chinese Tigers.

We will continue survey work in Nature Reserves where traces of the Chinese Tigers are found, such as Hunan, Jiangxi, Guangdong, and Fujian provinces, etc. Not only do we hope to find wild Chinese Tigers, we also hope to understand better their environment: habitat conditions, prey abundance, number of tigers a reserve can support, road and other barriers, settlements, and cultural variables that bear on the ease or difficulty of reintroduction (hunting pressure, economic conditions, land use, etc). We will invite experienced foreign field experts to guide our effort in such surveys.

We will continue and strengthen the protection work currently undertaken by the Forestry Administrations in various Chinese Tiger Reserves, to prevent people from trapping mostly prey animals that tigers live on.

China’s wildlife authorities also envision a system of tiger conservation reserves connected by corridors of habitat, which both Chinese and foreign experts think is practical for areas in China. There exists a potential for such corridors along provincial boundaries. Parks and forest plantations often exist along borders between Provinces. These would provide opportunities to manage as wildlife corridors. From these, linkages could be established to Reserves like Meihuashan and others. These could be identified with the GIS/GPS technology.

These corridors could be converted from the planted single species conifers to multiple species forests that in turn will in time support a diversity of plant and animals species. The diversity of plants could provide for the cultural and pharmacological needs of the local people. The local people could help manage these areas for those values while at the same time promoting prey diversity for tigers. Local people do have a wealth of knowledge that could be used to return some of these homogenous landscapes into cultural storehouses of plants and eventually animals for their cultural and biological resources. We will explore this great potential for local people to become outstanding wildlife resource managers - many of them are motivated to do this and many know a lot about the wildlife and wild lands in their home areas.

Ultimately, when we have enough rewilded Chinese Tigers, we will want to return some of them into their mountains if the conditions are favourable for their survival – good habitat and prey, etc.. They will be able to prosper by themselves. Then, you may hear their calming roars in the wild, but you will consider yourself extremely lucky if you ever encounter one. The Chinese say 占山为王 - Occupying the Mountain as King – they can become the Kings of Mountains again.

Concluding words

A China that is advancing in leaps and bounds is a China that absorbs the best from other countries’ experiences. It pioneered many inventions in the past. And it is now pioneering what no one has done in conservation. It is setting an example for conservation in the world by tackling a difficult conservation issue with an alternative approach that will develop and implement a conservation program for tigers that is based on the principles of economic benefit for humans and habitat enrichment for all species. It is creating a new model for China’s conservation- the Chinese Tiger Conservation Model, integrating the world’s best experience in conservation with China’s unique heritages and environment.

Save China's Tigers

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