Many biologists can cite successful reintroductions back into the wild of animals born and raised in captivity. In certain cases, these successes even involve animals that had gone entirely extinct from their natural habitats.

Tigers, in particular, offer certain behavioral models that suggest they may be more likely than most animals to adapt to a reintroduction, even if they've been raised in captivity. Cats, big and small, demonstrate astounding similarities across species lines. As a matter of fact, domestic cats - house cats - are typically and perhaps reliably used as models for their bigger, wilder cousins. Everyone knows that every house cat will hunt birds and mice regardless of how young it was when it was separated from its mother. The instinct is evidently "hard wired" into the animal. Felid biologists use this observation to speculate that tigers, too, will be able to hunt wild prey once they are reintroduced to a wild habitat, regardless of how long they've been kept in captivity.

There are only a few recorded cases of tigers being reintroduced in the wild. The story of Tara the tigress, which was brought to India from an English zoo, raised by Mr. Arjan Singh and then released into Dudwa National Park is perhaps the most famous, and controversial too. While Mr. Singh has offered plenty of evidence that she survived and went on to successfully raise her own cubs, some of his detractors claim that she died while others profess that she became a habitual man-eater.

There's a difference beyond simply being able to hunt wild prey once in a while-as a common house cat does-and being able to survive on such behavior. House cats hunt for sport; their main supply of food is provided by generous and affectionate owners. Wild tigers must hunt to live, and there is strong evidence that despite their superior and awesome hunting abilities, even the most experienced tiger will lose a kill far more frequently than it succeeds - perhaps as often as twenty failures to each success. The line between survival is therefore very thin. Tigers simply do not live an easy life, even when they are surrounded by lots of living prey in a natural setting.

The opposing school of thought among felid specialists says a tiger's ability to survive through hunting in the wild is not a hard-wired instinct, but rather a skill taught to cubs by their mothers -and there is equally strong evidence, gleaned from extensive observations of tigers both in the wild and captivity, to support this point of view. Hence (according to this argument), no tiger raised in captivity will every have honed its skills sufficiently to survive once it's reintroduced into the wild, and no offspring of any such tiger will be able either to demonstrate such skills or pass them on. This philosophical battle still rages, with no definitive experiment yet conducted to the satisfaction of all parties. But again, consider that well-fed captive tigers are known to commonly live at least 30% longer than their wild cousins do.

Virtually all tiger scientists agree that the fragmentation of wild tiger habitat is an extremely serious threat to their survival. Gene diversity is reaching critically low levels in many smaller tiger populations, many of which have become isolated from their nearest relatives. No one doubts that an infusion of new genes will greatly improve their long-term their survival prospects. How this is best achieved is the subject of heated debate.

Here is a summary of a controversial genetic conservation solution. It remains untried, but it is currently under investigation. In theory this could work, but in practice no one knows yet. The concept goes as follows:
1) Tigers are highly territorial and tend to imprint on their native habitat. Relocation of wild tigers is not believed to be a viable option, especially in the case of extremely rare tigers such as the Sumatrans and Siberians.
2) There are zoo-based breeding programs that have managed to preserve high levels of gene diversity through careful interbreeding. These genes would, no doubt, be of great benefit to inbred wild tiger populations. Since a captive tiger's chances of survival in the wild are poor, reintroduction is also not likely a good option. Another way must be found to assist interbreeding between these wild and captive animals.
3) Artificial insemination or controlled breeding of a wild female may be the solution. A thus impregnated female would be released back into the wild to give birth and rear offspring carrying the new genes which would enrich the local tiger population.

This practice would require capturing a female tiger, maintaining her with minimal human contact in a suitable enclosure and waiting for her to come into oestrus - a 35 day cycle. She would then either have to be immobilized and artificially inseminated from a genome resource bank or mated with a captive male that would be introduced to her enclosure. This is a highly interventionist approach and undoubtedly costly a costly one, but there appears to be few other choices. Obviously, this could or should only take place in a healthy habitat that has been cleared of poaching and other human encroachment threats.

With an open mind, The Tiger Foundation plans to foster further research on tiger genetics and would like to promote a healthy debate on this topic among the world's tiger, conservation and feline genetics experts. If you believe that you can make a material contribution on this front, we would be very pleased to hear from you.