ON­the 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 TIGERS CAN HUNT, BUT MOSTLY


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