Published online 27 November 2007 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2007.290

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South China tiger cub born in Africa

Animals raised in semi-natural setting could help reinstate wild population.

The cub will be taught to hunt on its own.Save China's Tigers

A 1-kilogram ball of fur, yet to be named, may be the best hope yet for saving the critically endangered South China tiger. That’s assuming that the male cub, born over the weekend on a wild-game reserve in South Africa, will one day be able to adjust to the jungles of China.

The birth marks the first time a South China tiger has been born in a semi-natural setting — an environment that some hope will improve the animal’s chances once released in the wild. The cub will receive some extra attention, including bottle-feeding, but will be allowed to roam the 150-acre park and learn to hunt wild antelope with his mother in a few months.

Chinese 'farms' are adept at rearing big cats: they have raised an estimated 5,000 Siberian tigers. But only 63 South China tigers remain in zoos and they have become so inbred that even captive pandas have better luck breeding. It has been two years since the last South China tiger cub was born in captivity. Fewer than ten animals are thought to exist in the wild.

Li Quan, a former fashion executive turned conservationist, is hoping to release this cub, along with any others born to her four adult tigers, into two Chinese nature reserves. Their release may come as soon as next summer, coinciding with the Beijing Olympics. “The project is to save the South China tiger from extinction,” says Li. “The birth is a major step forward.”

Most conservationists are not so upbeat about Li’s reintroduction campaign. Some think her US$10 million should have been spent on improving the tigers’ natural habitat, rather than on a breeding programme. An alternative project plans to release the almost genetically identical Indochinese tiger into South China, which many think will have a better chance of boosting animal numbers.

True pessimists think that reinstating a healthy population of wild tigers in China is a pipe dream. “They’re pretty much near extinction,” says Liu Yutang, a zoologist at Northeast Forestry University in Harbin. “It’s already too late to save the South China tigers.”

Pretty picture

The birth in Africa follows on the heels of reports of a surprise wild tiger sighting last month in the remote mountain forests of Shaanxi Province. A farmer came forward with a photo, hinting that isolated pockets of wild tigers may still exist, though the population was declared functionally extinct in 2002. The news seemed to stimulate the Chinese government to redouble its efforts to save the tigers.

But rumours and accusations immediately flew across the Chinese blogosphere that the photo, and the sighting, were false. Critics argued that the stripes seemed wrong for a South China tiger, or that the vegetation size indicated that the animal in the photo was too small. Evidence surfaced two weeks ago that the tiger in the farmer’s photo bears striking similarities to a popular Chinese New Year poster sold in the area a few years back. "The photos are considered fake by most of the Chinese public and even some officials," says Li.

The local government has defended the authenticity of the photo. The government is planning a survey of the region this winter, which may settle the debate.

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“If there are several living tigers out there, that would be marvellous,” says Ron Tilson, director of conservation at the Minnesota Zoo near Minneapolis. “It would obviously be the place to start a recovery programme,” he says.

Gene swap

Tilson is running a different programme, which aims to reintroduce a completely different tiger subspecies: albeit one that’s almost indistinguishable from the South China tiger. The Indochinese tiger comes from South-east Asia, where more than 1,000 are thought to live in the wild.

Muddling of genetic stock might not be such a big problem. Yue Bisong of Sichuan University in Chengdu says that of 45 purported South China tigers he has genetically sampled, only 13 were the real deal. The rest had all been genetically contaminated as a result of poor breeding and management.

Tilson aims to introduce 15 tigers into three nature reserves over the next decade; both reintroduction programmes may happen concurrently. 

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