Any day now, a group of South China tiger cubs will be flown to Africa, where they'll learn to live and hunt in the wild before they or their offspring are returned to China. It's a daring plan, but some doubt it will save one of the world's most endangered species

By Kenneth Howe/MEIHUASHAN RESERVE, FUJIAN PROVINCE, and HONG KONG

Issue cover-dated September 04, 2003

THINGS WEREN'T GOING WELL for Tom Dahmer. Yesterday's unexpected snowstorm had left him with numb toes. Today's sudden thaw had turned his camp site into a mud pit.

Worse still, Dahmer couldn't find any tigers. For two years, the 40-year-old American biologist had been travelling across China on a government-funded census of the wild South China tiger population. Now, in March 2003, he was in Hunan province at the Huapingshan Reserve, a land-that-time-forgot place where hills of evergreen forests rise above a river canyon. It wouldn't be a bad place to live if you were a tiger.

But after five provinces, countless interviews with locals and reviews of more than 4,000 photographs from 500 infrared, motion-detecting "trap cameras," Dahmer was about ready to admit defeat. "Tigers kill things," he says. "They shit every now and then. They scratch trees. Where's the skeletons of scarfed-up goats, scat or pug marks? There's nothing complicated about this; the truth is there's damn near none left."

Don't tell that to Li Quan. Born in 1962, the Year of the Tiger, she's been mad about cats since she was a little girl. Now she's driving an ambitious, some say foolhardy, plan backed by the Chinese government to save Panthera tigris amoyensis--the South China tiger. Here's how it goes:

On September 1, two South China tiger cubs bred in captivity at Suzhou Zoo will be shipped off to live in a park in South Africa, where, it's hoped, they will learn to hunt and survive in the wild. Over the next four years, they will be followed by another three to eight cubs. Then, in about five years' time, cubs that have been successfully "rewilded" will be reintroduced to China as young adults, where they'll go to live in an as yet unidentified pilot reserve.

Li believes that eco-tourism will make the planned reserve economically sustainable. And the resettled tigers might also breed with wild tigers (if there are any left), adding much-needed genetic diversity to the species.

For Li, dressed in a Chloé T-shirt adorned with a tiger, the project is something she must do: "I would feel personally responsible if I did not try to make a small contribution to its survival." But what Li and the Chinese authorities regard as lateral thinking, many in the international scientific community see as dangerous nonsense.

Naturalists argue that reintroduction should be done in the animals' natural environment--for South China tigers, that's China, not Africa. Their catalogue of reasons is depressing: They warn of unforeseen ecological effects and unnecessary risks inherent in shipping the tigers to Africa--everything from transport hazards to transmittable diseases.

And even if the cubs do survive the trip to Africa, naturalists warn that their reintroduction into the wild in China might do little good. The cubs, along with China's 60-or-so other captive tigers, are all the offspring of just six or eight original tigers, so they're highly inbred--birth rates are low, mortality rates are high. In fact, some in the conservation community have already issued a "death certificate" for the South China tiger, and argue that limited conservation funds should be spent on tiger sub-species with a viable wild population, like the Bengal tiger.

"I can't think of anybody in the world of conservation who would tell you this is a good idea," says Judy Mills from the United States-based Conservation International, who has focused on saving tigers for nearly 20 years. "This is not science. It's not conservation. It could be a major biological disaster for Africa."

Some days, you just can't save an endangered species.

If you were looking for wild tigers in China, you could do worse than visit the Meihuashan South China Tiger Breeding and Research Centre in Fujian province. The journey here goes via Longyan City, from where a river leads into the highlands. The urban sprawl soon dies out but the river is lined with coal and concrete factories that fill the sky with an acrid black smoke. Ascending Meihuashan (Plum Blossom Mountain), the air finally becomes crisp and clear, the forest primal. Rumour has it a three-legged tiger still stalks the forests around here; apparently it tore off its own leg to escape from a trap placed by a local hunter in 1983.

As late as 1959 there were an estimated 4,000 South China tigers in China, keeping alive a link with a creature long revered in Chinese folklore (up to three other tiger subspecies, the Siberian, Indochinese and--possibly--the Bengal, are also found in China). But then Mao Zedong started penning slogans like "Man Must Conquer Nature" and declared tigers and other predators vermin, leading to them being mercilessly hunted. Add in habitat destruction from the relentless tide of human-population expansion and illegal poaching, and the tiger's fate was sealed. It's now been at least 20 years since the last reliably confirmed sighting in the wild of a South China tiger (there have been plenty of unconfirmed reports). These days, even the most optimistic estimates put the wild population at no more than 30.

Which is why Li decided to act. As a top executive at Gucci, her knowledge of fur was as fashion until an epiphany struck on a holiday in South Africa in 1999: Why not apply the eco-tourism model in China to help save the tiger? That same year she formed Save China's Tigers and, moving quickly, signed the tiger-exchange deal with Beijing in November 2002. For this graduate of the Beijing University and Wharton School of Business, the scheme made good sense: South Africa would gain marketing mileage and tourist income from her high-profile campaign, while Beijing would learn how to use eco-tourism to boost the rural economy. But Li hadn't reckoned on the reaction of conservationists. "I was quite naove in underestimating the opposing forces," she confides.

Mills of Conservation International, for instance, damns the project as "a circus sideshow dressed up as eco-tourism. The only good I can possibly see is someone makes money and a wealthy dilettante feels as if she has done something. Conservation should be left to conservationists. This woman would be better off giving her money to those who know what to do with it."

Others are equally scathing. Chris Furley, veterinary director of Howletts Wild Animal Park in England, is a leading authority on wildlife reintroduction, with 15 years of experience overseeing release projects in Africa, such as returning captive lowland gorillas to the wild in the Congo. He was initially interested in Li's project, but changed his mind after flying to Beijing. "The whole thing is ridiculous," he says. "It doesn't make biological sense. Our strong feeling is it should be done in-situ."

Doubts over the project's scientific basis have also been raised by Ronald Tilson, renowned tiger researcher and conservation director of the Minnesota Zoo in the U.S., who originally oversaw the government-backed census study of the tigers. After just eight months he concluded that the tiger no longer exists in the wild. "Nobody was more disappointed than I," he says. Beijing shelved his report. "How I hate scientists," Li says.

Li has faced other obstacles, too. There was a very public falling out with the two South African brothers who had signed up to run the South African sanctuary. Dave and John Varty "pioneered the conservation development model using eco-tourism," according to Dave, and now run a veritable chain of upmarket wildlife lodges in Africa as well as a film-production company. Their interest in self-promotion (they had signed a deal with the Discovery Channel for a movie on the South China tigers) has led some to compare them to Las Vegas lion-tamers Siegfried and Roy. But in their defence, the Vartys point to their practical knowledge gained from 30 years of experience in rehabilitating lions, leopards, cheetahs and even two Bengal tigers to the wild. The brothers and Li are now battling things out in the South African courts, with Li accusing them of misusing funds and the Vartys accusing Li of defamation and intimidation. (Li has since secured a new partner, South Africa's National Zoo.)

Despite the difficulties and opposition, Li has refused to be knocked off course. She's a formidable opponent. She speaks seven languages, and is clearly intelligent, sometimes arrogant; she has cultivated connections with the Chinese government, in part through her family's links with the People's Liberation Army. She also has money: Her husband, Stuart Bray, is a multi-millionaire, who's coughed up more than $4 million for the tigers to date.

Both she and the Chinese government say there's no alternative to their project. Bray puts the choice in stark terms: "If we wait until the Chinese habitat is ready, some scientists predict the tigers will be extinct before the land is ready."

Wang Weisheng, director of the China Wildlife Research Centre, is the government spearhead. He asserts that in the world's most populous nation there's simply no room to rehabilitate an animal requiring a range of 20 square miles without first resettling people. By preparing tigers to live in the wild in South Africa, people won't need to be uprooted until at least 2008, by which time a model for eco-tourism will be in place.

"This way we can resettle and find people jobs quickly," explains Wang, who says the pilot reserve could become China's first-ever national wildlife park. And even if the tiger project does fail--Chris Furley puts the odds at no better than 50-50--land will still be returned to a pristine state. Wang, though, is expecting much more than just that: "We'll provide a good model for wildlife protection and economic development," he says.

Perhaps, but for successful reintroduction to take place, the nation must first cultivate a sense of environmental stewardship, which means preserving not only the tiger, but also the creatures it preys on--the antelope-like serow, wild boar and various species of deer--many of which are themselves endangered. According to Tom Dahmer, those creatures all showed up only rarely on trap-camera photographs during the tiger census. During that study, a porter at a wildlife reserve in Jiangxi snatched up a snake and stowed it in a shirt for later consumption, right in front of a forestry official. Even Stuart Bray recalls touring a swath of woods in another reserve with government officials when a rabbit hopped in their path and was swiftly caught by one of the reserve's staff employees with his bare hands. "Didn't take much to figure out he'd done that before," laughs Bray.

Back at the Meihuashan reserve, the six resident tigers are out playing in their hillside enclosure, their brilliant striped coats flashing a sunset orange over taut, rippling muscles: a glorious harmony of beauty and danger.

A procession of school buses arrives at the park, disgorging children who scream in terror and delight every time a tiger roars. Maybe this is the hope for the future of wildlife conservation in China: They're pint-sized, wearing 101 Dalmatians backpacks, sipping soda through straws. But without tigers, kids will have a lot less to cheer about. And the world will have lost a voice.