An­i­mal lover wants to set big cats free

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - FRONT PAGE - By CE­CILY LIU ce­cily.liu@ chi­


Quan Li says she fell in love with tigers when she first saw them in a Bei­jing zoo as a girl, un­aware that one day she would help save th­ese an­i­mals from ex­tinc­tion. Quan, a for­mer fash­ion ex­ec­u­tive who started a char­ity to help in­tro­duce South China tigers back into the wild in 2000, has proven that rewil­d­ing tigers works, be­cause the five an­i­mals she took from China to South Africa have now turned 14.

Not only that, but Quan hopes to pass on her ex­per­tise to other peo­ple and or­ga­ni­za­tions to help other en­dan­gered species.

“I was con­fi­dent they would sur­vive from the be­gin­ning, be­cause tigers are very ver­sa­tile,” she says. “They adapt ge­o­graph­i­cally to dif­fer­ent habi­tats, be­cause there are dif­fer­ent tigers in dif­fer­ent parts of Asia and they all come from the same an­ces­tor.”

The process of rewil­d­ing, which the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment started in the late 1990s and Quan helped to de­velop and make in­ter­na­tional, teaches tigers hunt­ing skills step by step by first feed­ing them car­casses of small game, and then live an­i­mals sim­i­lar to those pre­vi­ously pro­vided dead.

“Tigers spend up to 28 months in the wild with their mother to ac­quire the skills for sur­vival,” Quan says. “It’s like hu­mans hav­ing to learn how to read and write, so it is pos­si­ble to help tigers re­gain th­ese skills.”

The story of Quan’s rewil­d­ing project started in 1988 when she hol­i­dayed in Zam­bia want­ing to see wildlife in their habi­tat, and was in­spired by the way lo­cal con­ser­va­tion groups looked af­ter an­i­mals.

Quan then con­tacted the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment with the sug­ges­tion of help­ing to look af­ter tigers the same way, and was told a project to rewild South China tigers in Mei­huashan, a con­ser­va­tion area in Fujian prov­ince was about to start.

At the time, China had a lit­tle more than 60 South China tigers, but they were breed­ing poorly and had health prob­lems.

Quan asked to try her idea, but in­stead of Mei­huashan, she chose South Africa be­cause she felt the coun­try of­fered bet­ter in­fra­struc­ture and ex­per­tise for wildlife care.

Quan was al­lowed to take zoo tigers to Laohu Val­ley Re­serve in South Africa, a re­serve Quan’s team cre­ated from de­funct sheep farms, for the pur­pose of rewil­d­ing the tigers. is the Chi­nese word for tiger.

Quan says rewil­d­ing has been chal­leng­ing and re­ward­ing for her.

She re­calls Madonna, a very shy ti­gress that she saved from de­hy­dra­tion. She be­came very close to the an­i­mal.

“Madonna was very weak and had a shy per­son­al­ity. For a shy tiger to be translo­cated from Bei­jing to South Africa was hard, be­cause she could hurt her­self, so I was very ner­vous at the be­gin­ning.”

Madonna sur­vived the jour­ney, but in just a few days she be­came ill from de­hy­dra­tion be­cause she sel­dom had sun­shine when she was in zoos, so she was un­aware of the need to find shade.

“By the third day she was shak­ing and vom­it­ing, and was very de­hy­drated. We called the vet, but the vet couldn’t come im­me­di­ately, and told us to feed the tiger wa­ter,” she says.

As the lo­cal staff work­ing at the Laohu Val­ley Re­serve had no ex­pe­ri­ence in in­ter­act­ing with tigers, they were scared about ap­proach­ing Madonna to give her wa­ter, but the wa­ter bowl was too far away for Madonna to reach. See­ing the sit­u­a­tion, Quan vol­un­teered.

“Madonna was very weak, so I knew she wouldn’t harm me. Even if she did, it would prob­a­bly be just a few scratches.”

Af­ter of­fer­ing a bowl of wa­ter to Madonna, the tiger be­gan drink­ing, and overnight she drank more and more. By the next morn­ing she had re­cov­ered and was able to stand.

Quan says that be­cause Madonna is very timid, she has al­ways kept her dis­tance from peo­ple, in­clud­ing her, but it all changed af­ter that en­counter.

From then on, Madonna and Quan be­came very close. When­ever Quan ap­proaches the fence to Madonna’s area, Madonna ap­proaches the fence from her side and lies down next to the fence, and chuffs at her.

Quan says that there were many wor­ry­ing mo­ments in the project, and one big dis­as­ter was the death of one tiger, Hope, in 2005 from pneu­mo­nia and heart fail­ure. Quan says her team never had the chance to dis­cover the cause of Hope’s ill­ness be­cause he died soon af­ter the symp­toms were dis­cov­ered.

Quan says Hope’s death put a lot of pres­sure on her be­cause some peo­ple blamed her and said it proved the rewil­d­ing project would ul­ti­mately fail. For a mo­ment, she says, she be­gan to think she had been wrong.

“The worst is that I felt maybe the tigers didn’t have hope be­cause they are ge­net­i­cally so in­bred.”

But she pressed on and proved her crit­ics wrong.

“I had no choice. I kept go­ing. I had to.”

In 2007, Hu­loo, the first sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion tiger, was born, and was fol­lowed by another 10 cubs over the years.

Just as the project was en­joy­ing great suc­cess, Quan en­coun­tered a big chal­lenge. Her mar­riage was fall­ing apart. Her hus­band, who worked with her to rewild the tigers and headed the char­ity, cut her off from it.

Quan says that she no longer has ac­cess to the tigers, and has be­come anx­ious about them. But she has taken com­fort from the fact that the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment has told her it will translo­cate all 14 tigers from South Africa to Mei­huashan some time next year.

The tigers are now ca­pa­ble of liv­ing in the wild, so will be able to cope with Mei­huashan’s en­vi­ron­ment, she says. The Chi­nese gov­ern­ment has cho­sen three po­ten­tial habi­tats for them, in Jiangxi, Hu­nan and Hubei, where the tigers are ex­pected to live per­ma­nently and then breed in the wild by them­selves.

Mean­while, Quan has es­tab­lished a new char­ity, called China Tiger Re­vival, which she says she will help fund with the set­tle­ment money from her di­vorce.

She says China Tiger Re­vival will not be rewil­d­ing South China tigers, as this step is al­ready com­pleted. In­stead, it will fo­cus on shar­ing the knowl­edge of tiger rewil­d­ing with other or­ga­ni­za­tions so they can use the method to help save other an­i­mals.


Quan Li runs a char­ity that has in­tro­duced South China tigers back into the wild over the past decade.

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