I HAVE TO HAVE A GOOD ENDING FOR THIS
CAN STUART BRAY GET HIS SOUTH CHINA TIGERS BACK TO SOUTH CHINA?
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
THEY FEED ON FRESHLY SHOT GAME DELIVERED BY LAOHU RANGERS