ON the high­way south of Bloem­fontein, South Africa, Stu­art Bray sits in the back seat of a sa­fari truck, sweat­ing in jeans and boots in the 100-de­gree heat of a De­cem­ber af­ter­noon. Bray and his driver have just picked up two Chi­nese govern­ment of­fi­cials from the air­port, and now they’re wedged in next to him, their ex­pres­sions hid­den by sun­glasses. As they drive, the only land­marks are dusty sheep farms and the oc­ca­sional os­trich.

Bray rides cheer­fully un­til, an hour into the drive, his cell phone buzzes. A tabloid reporter is call­ing from Lon­don, the city where Bray lives most of the year and where he’s get­ting a high-pro­file di­vorce. His wife has made an­other set of ac­cu­sa­tions in the mul­ti­mil­lion-pound case. “No, it’s not true that I don’t like an­i­mals,” Bray tells the reporter, ir­ri­tated. “No, it’s not true that I hate my wife’s cats.” It’s im­pos­si­ble to tell if the Chi­nese are lis­ten­ing.

The phone sig­nal dies as the truck en­ters a wind-blasted, rocky ex­panse of scrub­land called the Karoo. Af­ter an awk­ward si­lence, Bray turns his com­pan­ions’ at­ten­tion to the crea­tures they’ve come to see. “They could kill you just play­ing,” he says. “If one wanted to hurt you, you would re­ally be in trou­ble.”

The truck ap­proaches a 10-foot-high elec­tric fence that stretches for miles into the dis­tance, like some­thing out of

Juras­sic Park. A sign on a gate, marked Laohu Val­ley Re­serve, warns in Afrikaans that tres­passers will be pros­e­cuted. Af­ter stop­ping at a lodge, the ve­hi­cle con­tin­ues down a dirt track that leads to more elec­tri­fied fences. Th­ese di­vide slopes of dried grass into an un­even grid, each roughly the size of a foot­ball field. Af­ter a few more min­utes, the truck stops next to the only build­ing in sight, a hut with cage doors, and Bray and the Chi­nese get out.

Bray takes a breath. Even though he’s been to this spot on dozens of oc­ca­sions, he feels the same pricks of ex­cite­ment ev­ery time he sees the fig­ure in the grass: a 7-foot South China tiger, crisp black brush strokes on a coat of deep rust fringed with white, head held low, yel­low eyes track­ing the men through the fence. Her name is Madonna. She yawns, bar­ing ca­nines the size of small rail­road spikes, and rolls onto her back with her paws in the air.

One of the Chi­nese of­fi­cials, Lu Jun, squats down to take pho­tos. The other, Zhang De­hui, points at Madonna’s face. “Three stripes and one ver­ti­cal,” he says. “This is a Chi­nese char­ac­ter. Pro­nounced ‘wong.’ It means king.” He sketches the sym­bol on a piece of pa­per.

Bray, 54, who is short and trim with neat, gray­ing hair, looks skep­ti­cal. “Some­times you can kinda see it,” he says. Bray is ea­ger to keep the Chi­nese happy. He runs the or­ga­ni­za­tion that owns the Laohu re­serve, and Madonna be­longs to one of the most crit­i­cally en­dan­gered species on earth, one that the World Wildlife Fund con­sid­ers “func­tion­ally ex­tinct.” None are be­lieved to re­main in the wild; per­haps 100 ex­ist in cap­tiv­ity. Bray has 19 of them on his 74,000 acres. A 20th died the night be­fore, af­ter an en­counter with a bles­bok. He wants to re-wild the tigers, help them learn how to hunt and breed, and re­turn them to the forests of south­east­ern China. Lu and Zhang have flown in from the State Forestry Ad­min­is­tra­tion in Bei­jing to talk about bring­ing Bray’s tigers home.

Madonna watches the group with mild cu­rios­ity. De­ter­min­ing that no one is go­ing to give her any food, she turns her head re­gally to watch the sun sink over the rocky cliffs and driedup riverbeds of Laohu Val­ley.

Bray takes Lu and Zhang to the camp’s main lodge, where rangers set out a sim­ple din­ner af­ter night­fall. It’s too hot to close the doors, so in­sects fly in from the dark­ness and swarm the lights as the men dis­cuss the tigers’ fate. Prob­a­bly more than any other per­son on the planet, Bray is re­spon­si­ble for whether the South China tiger sur­vives or be­comes ex­tinct, a no­tion he finds as sur­pris­ing as any­one else. Born and raised in Amer­ica, he lives in Lon­don and main­tains Bel­gian cit­i­zen­ship. A for­mer ex­ec­u­tive at Deutsche Bank, his nat­u­ral habi­tat is Wall Street or the Square Mile of Lon­don, where he spent a ca­reer in struc­tured fi­nance. Bray is hap­pier talk­ing about Black­S­c­holes op­tions pric­ing than he is trekking through the bush, where fly­ing bugs make him jump.

A hot wind rat­tles the win­dows of the lodge as Zhang, the di­rec­tor of his agency’s wildlife con­ser­va­tion divi­sion, be­gins a se­ries of toasts, as is Chi­nese cus­tom, marked with shots of lo­cal liquor. In halt­ing but clear English, he thanks Bray for his ef­forts at restor­ing a species on the brink. The next step, Zhang says, will be the hard­est. Bray’s char­ity has spent 10 years teach­ing zoo tigers how to hunt. If th­ese po­ten­tial man-eaters are to be sent to China, the govern­ment will need to re­lo­cate some of its cit­i­zens. In a na­tion of 1.4 bil­lion, even the most re­mote na­ture pre­serves have some hu­man set­tle­ments.

Bray says he wants 300 wild tigers in a sprawl­ing habi­tat.

“We have to move the peo­ple,” Zhang tells him. “China is not like South Africa. You are very am­bi­tious.”

Bray stares at him. “I have bet my whole life on this,” he says.

In 1998, Bray was on va­ca­tion in Zam­bia with his girl­friend, Li Quan, when their guides on a walk­ing sa­fari led them straight into a pack of lions. Ter­ri­fied and wor­ried that Li might bolt, Bray grabbed her by the shirt col­lar. They backed out. After­ward, he couldn’t stop laugh­ing be­cause of the adrenaline.

Li, a slen­der woman with ex­pres­sive eyes, hadn’t been scared. She’d al­ways been fas­ci­nated by big cats and filmed the whole scene on her video cam­era. Born in China, she’s one year younger than Bray. They met as grad­u­ate stu­dents at the Whar­ton School of the Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia in the late 1980s. Li later gave up a li­cens­ing job at Gucci to move to Lon­don and be with Bray, then a part­ner at Bankers Trust. She needed some­thing to oc­cupy her while he was out cre­at­ing tax-fo­cused se­cu­ri­ti­za­tion deals, and the sa­fari episode, she’d later say, gave her an idea. What if she could bring African-style eco­tourism to China, cre­at­ing a habi­tat for en­dan­gered tigers and a source of rev­enue to help them thrive?

Bray was skep­ti­cal but vaguely sup­port­ive of con­ser­va­tion, and gave Li $150,000 to start a char­ity, Save China’s Tigers. Wary of be­ing asked to write more checks, he told her, “This is a black hole that will con­sume in­fi­nite money and is doomed to fail.”

Li spoke to some­one she knew in the State Forestry Ad­min­is­tra­tion and found him sur­pris­ingly re­cep­tive to the idea of rein­tro­duc­ing the big cats to the coun­try. The ear­li­est known tigers lived in China more than 2 mil­lion years ago, and Ne­olithic peo­ple there carved fig­ures of them into rocks to ward off ghosts, dis­as­ters, and dis­ease. While the South China tiger once roamed a ter­ri­tory 1,200 miles wide, the species was all but erad­i­cated by hun­ters dur­ing the “anti-pest” cam­paigns of Mao’s Great Leap For­ward, and its for­est habi­tat was largely de­stroyed. There is a con­ser­va­tion move­ment in mod­ern China, al­beit a nascent one.

The SFA told Li that even if she were able to ob­tain and re-wild a suf­fi­cient num­ber of tigers, it would be a while be­fore there was any­where suit­able to put them.

That was a prob­lem for the fu­ture. More press­ing was that Li and Bray had no con­ser­va­tion ex­pe­ri­ence, and the big wildlife pro­tec­tion groups didn’t want to work with them. The pair were seen as rich dilet­tantes who might di­vert scarce funds from groups with more re­al­is­tic projects. To boost cred­i­bil­ity, Li ap­proached John and Dave Varty, the South African big-cat ex­perts and film­mak­ers, who were fa­mous for op­er­at­ing a re­serve where tourists pay to get close to tigers from in­side cages mounted on trucks. Li asked the Var­tys to work with Save China’s Tigers, to help her find good land in South Africa and build a staff. Bray started to come around to Li’s pro­ject. “I was im­pressed by Li’s per­se­ver­ance in the face of op­po­si­tion from just about ev­ery­one,” he says. “It be­gan to feel like David and Go­liath, and I had a lot of sym­pa­thy with David.”

Bray had his own bat­tles. In 1999, Deutsche Bank took over Bankers Trust, and he started to war over tax strat­egy with a ris­ing ex­ec­u­tive named An­shu Jain. Bray was fired in 2001; Jain went on to be­come co-chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer. Bray tried to move his team to an­other com­pany but couldn’t pull it off; he de­cided he was fin­ished with bank­ing. “I was so sick of the pol­i­tics and the in­fight­ing,” he says. “I just didn’t want to do that any­more.” Af­ter two decades, he’d saved about $25 mil­lion. Li re­mem­bers him be­ing mis­er­able. “He was lost and re­sent­ful,” she says.

They got mar­ried in a small cer­e­mony at a town hall near their East Lon­don home a month later, in Au­gust 2001. Li in­vited a hand­ful of friends. No one came for Bray. “I was the only one who stood by him,” Li says.

With­out a day job, Bray be­gan to think more about the tiger idea he’d once thought was doomed. The tiger, which kills by bit­ing through the neck of its prey, re­mains a po­tent sym­bol of in­tel­li­gence, power, viril­ity, and el­e­gance in China, and it’s one of the 12 signs of the Chi­nese zodiac. Bray trav­eled to China with Dave Varty, where they re­searched

the po­ten­tial mar­ket for tiger tourism. Bray be­came con­vinced that sav­ing the species could be not just vir­tu­ous but also lu­cra­tive. “Help na­ture, help com­mu­ni­ties, and make a profit,” Bray says. “What’s not to like?”

He bought an area about four times the size of Man­hat­tan in the Free State prov­ince of South Africa and agreed to lease it to the Varty brothers, who would run the re­serve. Li talked the Chi­nese govern­ment into send­ing them South China tiger cubs that had been bred in zoos. In 2002, Bray and Li were all ready to fly to Bei­jing to fi­nal­ize the plan. At the last mo­ment, ac­cord­ing to Bray, the Var­tys tried to change the deal. Bray ex­pelled them from the pro­ject and set up his own char­i­ta­ble trust to take the brothers’ place in their ar­range­ment. The par­ties sued and coun­ter­sued. John Varty, reached by phone in De­cem­ber, didn’t want to dis­cuss the dis­pute. “I’ve dealt with a lot of peo­ple in my life, a lot of rich peo­ple as well,” Varty said. “Two of the most dis­trust­ful and evil peo­ple I have ever met in my life are Quan and Bray.” Then he hung up. (Varty was mauled and al­most killed by one of his tigers in 2012.)

Li and Bray were on their own, with the first cubs due to ar­rive within a year. “We had very lit­tle time,” Bray says. Li started try­ing to find sci­en­tists, rangers, and vets. They needed fences, en­clo­sures, spe­cial cages for trans­port, live prey, and a plan for turn­ing caged tigers into wild hun­ters, which many ex­perts thought was im­pos­si­ble.

While Li was busy at the re­serve, Bray turned to the two things he did best: lit­i­ga­tion and se­cu­ri­ti­za­tion. As well as fight­ing the Var­tys in court, Bray sued Deutsche Bank over stock op­tions he wanted to ac­cess. Be­cause they hadn’t yet vested, he sought to sell op­tions on the op­tions. This made per­fect sense in his mind, but Deutsche Bank wouldn’t give him a clear an­swer as to whether such a trans­ac­tion was al­lowed. Bray also be­gan to ponder other ways to raise money for a pro­ject that was de­vour­ing cap­i­tal. “I started to think about the tools that were avail­able to me,” he says. Char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally, he came up with the most com­pli­cated so­lu­tion imag­in­able.

Bray planned to raise as much as $2 bil­lion in this way: He’d cre­ate and then sell as­set-backed se­cu­ri­ties, use the money to buy forestry as­sets in China, and then, with in­come from sell­ing wood, re­pay in­vestors in the orig­i­nal se­cu­ri­ties. Any­thing left over would go to the tigers, and a fi­nance firm—which Bray set up—would get fees for ar­rang­ing the deal.

“My friends thought I was crazy,” Bray says. “In par­tic­u­lar, some of the peo­ple I was try­ing to per­suade to work with me thought it was crazy.” Bray imag­ined some­thing like a phil­an­thropic hedge fund. If suc­cess­ful, it would make enough profit to pay for a tiger habi­tat in China and also give Bray and his staff the kind of com­pen­sa­tion City of Lon­don fi­nanciers were ac­cus­tomed to—as much as £10 mil­lion ($14.5 mil­lion) a year for Bray per­son­ally. That would make him one of the best- paid con­ser­va­tion­ists in his­tory. Bray pitched Credit Suisse, Gold­man Sachs, and ABN Amro, but none would agree to back the scheme.

In Septem­ber 2003 han­dlers at the Shang­hai Zoo put a pair of South China tiger cubs named Cathay and Hope into cages and flew them to Hong Kong. There, Li held a news con­fer­ence with for­mer Bond girl Michelle Yeoh, whom she’d en­listed as a char­ity pa­tron through a fash­ion-in­dus­try friend. Af­ter an­other plane ride, the tigers ar­rived in South Africa, where Li in­tro­duced the cubs to more jour­nal­ists at the Na­tional Zoo­log­i­cal Gar­dens in Pre­to­ria. “We have to take this dras­tic mea­sure to save them from likely ex­tinc­tion,” she told re­porters and pho­tog­ra­phers. Cathay and Hope spent sev­eral weeks in quar­an­tine at the fa­cil­ity, got treated for ringworm, and re­ceived a den­tal checkup be­fore be­ing de­liv­ered to Laohu.

A book re­leased by Li years later de­scribes the mo­ment the cubs first set foot on semi­wild African soil. “Li’s heart­beat quick­ened. Yes! It could work, it was al­ready work­ing,” reads the in­tro­duc­tion. “Her del­i­cate Chi­nese fists clenched with joy. Her crit­ics were wrong. They were dull, unimag­i­na­tive peo­ple who dared not dream.” The re­al­ity was less in­spir­ing. When Cathay and Hope ar­rived, they re­fused to get off the con­crete foun­da­tion at the gate. They’d never walked on grass be­fore. Laohu staff had to use a ball the cubs played with to coax them into their en­clo­sure.

When it came to feed­ing, there was no guide­book for re-wild­ing a tiger. Hardly any­one had at­tempted it be­fore. “This was all spec­u­la­tion un­til you ac­tu­ally try it,” Bray says. The first time they put a live chicken in the en­clo­sure, the cubs chased it around for a while un­til the bird got tired. “Once the chicken turned around and stared at them, they just stopped.” Be­ing faced down by poul­try was a hu­mil­i­at­ing start to life in the wild for two young tigers. The team mixed chicken meat into zoo food to get the cats used to the taste, then in­tro­duced plucked car­casses, then dead birds with feath­ers on. Even­tu­ally, Cathay and Hope over­came their first live chicken.

Two more cubs ar­rived from China in late 2004. Madonna, who came then, got de­hy­drated af­ter spend­ing all day in the African sun. “There was shade avail­able, but she was too naive to know how to use it,” Bray says. Li stayed up all night of­fer­ing wa­ter to the shak­ing, vom­it­ing tiger.

A 4-year-old male called 327 ar­rived in 2007. He was used to life in zoos and never got com­fort­able out­side. “You could see by the way he walked,” Bray says. Fi­nally, 327 found his mojo by mat­ing with one of the fe­males; then, pumped up with ma­cho pride, he picked a fight with an­other male and lost. His skeleton is mounted in a glass case in the re­serve lodge.

Bray’s le­gal prob­lems got worse. The Varty lit­i­ga­tion was cost­ing $1 mil­lion a year in lawyers’ fees. A South African an­i­mal pro­tec­tion group sued one of Laohu Val­ley’s man­agers, say­ing it was cruel to put liv­ing crea­tures in an en­clo­sure for tigers to hunt. South African judges re­jected the law­suit in 2008, but by then Bray and Li were al­most out of money. The tigers were breed­ing, and the pro­ject needed more fences for new en­clo­sures to sep­a­rate them, as well as more an­te­lope for hunt­ing prac­tice. The world­wide fi­nan­cial cri­sis that year of­fi­cially ended any in­ter­est from banks in Bray’s forestry-fi­nance idea.

Just when the pro­ject needed it most, there was an un­ex­pected wind­fall. While Bray was fight­ing with Deutsche Bank over his op­tions, the bank put out a news re­lease. Bray claimed that it im­plied his old divi­sion was caught up in a U.S. tax probe, which wasn’t the case, and he sued for li­bel. The suit, along with the stock dis­pute, was set­tled out of court. In 2009 he ar­ranged for Deutsche Bank to pay £20 mil­lion to a Save China’s Tigers char­i­ta­ble trust as a tax-free do­na­tion. The same year, Bray gave up his Amer­i­can cit­i­zen­ship and be­came a Bel­gian na­tional, say­ing he didn’t want the or­ga­ni­za­tion to face oner­ous U.S. taxes.

Amid the law­suits, the money trou­bles, and the dif­fi­culty of what they were at­tempt­ing, Li and Bray’s re­la­tion­ship be­gan to rup­ture. Li saw her­self as the char­ity’s fig­ure­head, but her style ir­ri­tated Bray. She cre­ated Twit­ter and Face­book ac­counts for the tigers. The book she re­leased in 2010, based on her di­aries, de­scribed tigers with smiles on their faces, and love tri­an­gles, jeal­ousies, and heart­breaks when they mated. Bray thought all this un­der­mined the pro­ject’s cred­i­bil­ity.

They went to coun­sel­ing, but the ar­gu­ments got worse. Li said Bray be­came emo­tion­ally abu­sive; Bray said Li

threat­ened to tell the Chi­nese govern­ment there was some­thing shady about the Deutsche Bank set­tle­ment.

Bray re­moved Li from the char­ity in 2012. She filed for di­vorce in Lon­don 10 days later. They’ve barely spo­ken since. Li signs off e-mails to Bray with “wrath of the ti­gress whose baby has been taken away.”

Li climbed into the wit­ness box of a wood-pan­eled Lon­don court­room on Dec. 17, 2013, to tes­tify in the di­vorce. She was sur­rounded by at least a dozen red fold­ers full of ev­i­dence, and be­hind her the court walls were lined with law books, some more than a cen­tury old. Her hus­band sat a few feet away in the front row. Wear­ing a sil­ver tiger belt buckle, Li sobbed as she spoke. When they founded the char­ity in 2000, Bray thought of the tigers as her “lit­tle hobby,” she said. She’d been forced out af­ter de­vot­ing 13 years of her life to an an­i­mal she loved. “I in­tensely hope I can con­tinue my work.”

The court had to re­solve an im­por­tant fi­nan­cial is­sue be­fore it could grant a di­vorce. Li ar­gued that a trust hold­ing the Deutsche Bank money was for the cou­ple’s ben­e­fit, as well as for the tigers— a so-called mar­i­tal as­set to which she was en­ti­tled. Bray ar­gued that the funds were ex­clu­sively for the char­ity.

It quickly be­came clear how far Li was will­ing to go to win her case. She de­scribed liv­ing well on the char­ity’s funds. “I bought fur­ni­ture, we had ex­pen­sive din­ners, we had ex­pen­sive wines,” Li said. There were rented sports cars and a wall mu­ral. The cou­ple’s op­er­at­ing ex­penses, which would have seemed mod­est at Deutsche Bank or Gucci, looked shock­ing when charged to a reg­is­tered char­ity. The vet­eran judge, Sir Paul Co­leridge, was in­cred­u­lous. “This is a char­ity with peo­ple be­ing asked to con­trib­ute money to it,” he said. “It was in­cred­i­bly dis­hon­est.”

“I was care­ful to en­sure that out­side money went to the tiger pro­ject,” Li replied.

Li also al­leged that Bray used the char­ity to shield his wealth from taxes. “What lies be­hind all this is Mr. Bray and Mr. Bray’s con­trol,” Li’s lawyer, Richard Todd, told the judge. The tiger pro­ject, he said, was go­ing nowhere.

Bri­tish news­pa­pers found the story of the mil­lion­aire banker, his glam­orous wife, and their en­dan­gered preda­tors ir­re­sistible. “CLAWS OUT IN £50M SPLIT OF TIGER COU­PLE,” read one head­line in the Daily Mail. “Tremen­dous dam­age has been done to the char­ity by the re­port­ing of the hear­ings here,” Bray com­plained to the judge.

He paced out­side the court­room dur­ing breaks. Asked by re­porters for a way to con­tact him, he said he’d have to take le­gal ad­vice be­fore giv­ing out his e-mail ad­dress.

Bray’s day in court came in June 2014. He strug­gled to keep his cool dur­ing hours of cross-ex­am­i­na­tion. “You are read­ing far too much into it,” he shouted dur­ing one ex­change, his black­rimmed glasses pushed up onto his head. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” He rubbed his face with his hands. “Let me take a mo­ment.”

“Th­ese are per­fectly le­git­i­mate ques­tions,” Co­leridge said, look­ing down at Bray from the judge’s bench. “We have to ex­plore th­ese things.”

Bray agreed his use of over­seas trusts and ad­vi­sory firms was con­fus­ing. There are rea­son­able ex­pla­na­tions for the com­plex­ity, he ar­gued, de­scrib­ing how he’d tried to use his fi­nance skills to achieve the char­ity’s goals. When an an­i­mal is “fac­ing im­mi­nent ex­tinc­tion, then you swing for the fences,” he said. “You make big bets, be­cause if the bets pay off, you have the money to save them.”

Judge Co­leridge took un­til Oc­to­ber 2014 to de­liver a ver­dict. He ruled in Bray’s fa­vor, say­ing he’d seen noth­ing im­proper about the char­ity or the cou­ple’s ac­tions, even those he’d ini­tially seen as dis­hon­est. The trust hold­ing the Deutsche Bank money “was al­ways, and is, only for the Chi­nese tigers.” Whereas Bray’s tes­ti­mony was clear and con­sis­tent, Li “has be­come blinded by her de­sire for re­venge,” Co­leridge said.

Li has since started her own char­ity, China Tiger Re­vival. In Novem­ber 2015 she got per­mis­sion from a panel of judges to ap­peal Co­leridge’s rul­ing. If she doesn’t win the case, she says, she’ll be left with noth­ing. Even the East Lon­don home she still shares with Bray is owned by Save China’s Tigers. Li, her lawyers said in a state­ment, “wants the courts to un­der­stand what is re­ally go­ing on in the fi­nan­cial su­per­struc­ture built up around th­ese tigers by her hus­band.”

On the se­cond day of the SFA’s visit to the re­serve, Zhang and Lu rise early to watch the tigers be­ing fed. Al­though they mostly sub­sist on freshly shot game, they’re learn­ing to hunt. One of the males once killed an 1,800-pound eland and spent a week chew­ing on it. The tigers have also eaten aard­varks, ba­boons, and por­cu­pines, and the moth­ers are pass­ing th­ese skills on to their cubs.

In Madonna’s area, one of the rangers tosses a dead an­te­lope over the fence. The tiger bounds up, snatches the an­i­mal by the neck, and car­ries it a few yards. She licks the fur off with her abra­sive tongue, then bites into the rump. Within a few min­utes, the bot­tom half of the an­te­lope is a bloody mess. There’s a crack­ling noise like burn­ing twigs as Madonna bites through a leg bone. “That sound still gives me the shiv­ers,” says one of Bray’s em­ploy­ees, Brad Nil­son.

Bray poses for pho­tos next to the feed­ing tiger. “I should make that my Tin­der pro­file pic­ture,” he says later, back at the lodge.

His staff sets up a pro­jec­tor screen in the lounge so he can give a pre­sen­ta­tion to his Chi­nese guests, sur­rounded by tiger pho­tos and big-cat-themed or­na­ments. Loss of bio­di­ver­sity is a threat to all life on earth, Bray be­gins, and it’s hap­pen­ing

faster than at any point in hu­man his­tory. “We have to re­verse this prob­lem,” he says, “not for me be­cause I love tigers, but be­cause I want the planet to re­main hab­it­able.”

Bray de­scribes a site in south­west China, the Qi­chong Na­tional Na­ture Re­serve, as an ideal home for the tigers. It’s primal for­est, sur­rounded on three sides by moun­tains and a river, re­mote and sparsely pop­u­lated, but with good enough trans­port links to sup­port eco­tourism, he says. He’s signed a pro­vi­sional agree­ment with lo­cal of­fi­cials and is ne­go­ti­at­ing with the pro­vin­cial govern­ment.

Zhang lis­tens care­fully be­fore re­spond­ing. More than a decade has passed since Chi­nese zoos first loaned Bray and Li their tiger cubs, Zhang says, and there’s pres­sure to bring them home. The ques­tion is how. One op­tion is to re-cre­ate Laohu in China so the an­i­mals can ac­cli­mate to a forested en­vi­ron­ment and then be re­leased later—an in­terim lo­ca­tion, in other words, at a mod­est size.

Bray frowns and cracks his knuck­les. The sug­ges­tion is far short of his vi­sion of tigers re­turn­ing to a pris­tine wilder­ness. “At great per­sonal cost, I’ve lived up to my com­mit­ments,” he says. “I ex­pect China to do the same. Whether this was a silly folly or a suc­cess­ful pro­ject de­pends on what we end up with in China.” His voice is get­ting louder. “I have to have a good end­ing for this.”

Zhang replies calmly, “The Western way—frankly speak­ing, we don’t think it will work in China.”

Even if Bray could de­lay the tigers’ re­turn in­def­i­nitely, he’s fac­ing a big­ger prob­lem: At some point, the char­ity will run out of money. Bray says it has cash of about £5 mil­lion, and the rev­enue pos­si­bil­i­ties at Laohu are lim­ited. One is game ranch­ing— rais­ing an­i­mals such as spring­bok and eland and sell­ing them on South Africa’s live game mar­kets. A se­cond is charg­ing hun­ters to shoot such an­i­mals at Laohu. That might be con­tro­ver­sial, given that hunt­ing is what got the South China tiger into trou­ble in the first place, but Bray can live with it. “I wouldn’t con­sider it un­just for me to make some money,” he says. “I think the like­li­hood of me mak­ing the money back I put in is close to zero.”

If the Chi­nese govern­ment won’t pay for a re­serve, the best re­main­ing out­come might be to find a bil­lion­aire pa­tron. Zhang and Lu keep talk­ing about a po­ten­tial backer named Su Zhi­gang, the chair­man of Guang­dong Chime­l­ong Group, who’s built a theme park em­pire in China. His com­pany’s at­trac­tions, in­clud­ing a cir­cus, a drive-through sa­fari, and the coun­try’s largest theme park, Chime­l­ong Par­adise, get mil­lions of vis­i­tors ev­ery year. Re­cently he opened a $5 bil­lion is­land wa­ter park near Ma­cau, a kind of Asian Sea­World. Su is ap­par­ently in­ter­ested in tak­ing Bray’s tigers.

Bray ap­pears in­trigued but says he needs to be con­vinced that Su would be a suit­able part­ner. He’s heard the name be­fore but hasn’t been able to con­tact the en­tre­pre­neur, and Zhang and Lu seem un­will­ing to ar­range a meet­ing. But Bray un­der­stands that Su has two things he lacks: ac­cess to vast re­sources and clout in China. (Su didn’t re­spond to sev­eral re­quests for com­ment.)

The ar­gu­ment over the tigers’ fate, and who will pay for it, con­tin­ues into the evening, as Bray and Zhang walk off to sit in near-dark­ness at an out­door ta­ble. Above the sound of crick­ets and spring­bok steak siz­zling on the bar­be­cue, Bray can be heard shout­ing, “This is my legacy.”

Bray’s prob­lems seem a long way off dur­ing a game-spot­ting drive on the fi­nal day of the of­fi­cials’ visit. The tigers are what con­ser­va­tion­ists call an um­brella species: The care lav­ished on them also ben­e­fits other crea­tures in the ecosys­tem. Rais­ing ex­otic Asian tigers in Africa has turned a clus­ter of for­mer sheep farms into a stun­ning habi­tat, al­beit one sur­rounded by fences and man­aged by peo­ple. There are two wild chee­tahs on the re­serve, and a grassy plain is strewed with bleached bones from their kills. Spring­bok bounce along­side the truck, flout­ing grav­ity.

Bray bounces in his seat as one of the re­serve man­agers, Hein­rich Funck, steers along a rocky track. “I got in­volved grad­u­ally,” Bray says, re­flect­ing. “Sud­denly I had 30,000 hectares.”

Funck slows so his pas­sen­gers can ob­serve a lone oryx stand­ing un­der the shade of a tree. “I would say it took over your life,” he says.

Bray is silent for a mo­ment. “Yes,” he says. “It has.”




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