Poised and alert, the South China tiger creeps along the drenched savannah -- one of the world's rarest big cats who recently produced new hope in a foreign land to save her dying species.
Shoulders hunched, Cathay bounds playfully toward another tiger named Madonna, their burnt orange coats and sharp black stripes an unusual sight in the African grasslands, now the scene of their fight for survival.
On Nov. 23, Cathay gave birth to the first cub of this exceptionally endangered species born outside of China -- the product of an ambitious and much-criticized project.
"The rain makes them playful. Tigers love water," says Quan Li (
"This is definitely their last chance," she says, as a sudden downpour cools off the coarse grasses in this remote area of South Africa that is now their home.
"We are attempting something that has never been done. We're taking a gamble. It might still not succeed but at least we have tried," she says.
Founder of the Save China's Tiger's organization, Quan bought 17 defunct sheep farms in the Free State Province, setting up a reserve where she is reintroducing tigers into the wild and teaching them how to hunt.
With only 60 such cats left in zoos, and the last confirmed sighting in the wild dating back to 1964, the South China tiger -- a direct descendent of the earliest tigers thought to have originated in China two million years ago -- is in big trouble.
Conservationists argue that the animal is functionally extinct and write off the project as an expensive waste of time, though Quan contends it holds value not only for the tiger's survival but for its importance to China.
"People don't know wildlife reserves. How can you expect people to want to help wildlife if they can't even see them," she says.
Quan feels the tiger could do for conservation in China what the "Big Five" did in South Africa, using the term once used by hunters for five of Africa's greatest wild animals -- the lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo and rhino -- today a national "signature" and major tourism draw.
"Critics just don't understand the goal is not just to save a few endangered tigers but to save a Chinese culture symbol," says Quan, herself born under the Chinese horoscope's year of the tiger.
Sue Lieberman, director of the Global Species Programme of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), wrote recently that the project was a "tremendous expenditure when there are so many other priorities for tiger conservation in China."
"Functionally, the South China tiger is virtually extinct," she wrote in the Sunday Telegraph. "This isn't going to bring it back."
Lieberman is one of several critics who argue the animal -- whose genes have deteriorated as dwindling numbers led to inbreeding -- poses risks for South Africa's biodiversity and that the dry Free State is an unsuitable habitat.
Since the project's launch in 2003, however, four zoo-born tigers have learned to hunt and are thriving in the grasslands. The latest triumph was the cub Cathay and mate TigerWoods provided to the Laohu Valley Reserve.
"Yes they are an exotic species, but so are cattle who do more damage to indigenous wildlife than a tiger," says Quan, arguing that the tigers do not compete for game with South African animals.
"We have to introduce prey. What game was here? These were sheep farms," she says.
The goal of the project, expected to last some 15 years, is to introduce a new generation of cubs to the wild in China. Quan, who used to work in fashion, is still trying to get funding to develop a designated area for this purpose.
She says she and her husband have footed the US$8 million for the South African base but need US$20 million more to prepare two Chinese sites.
If this fails, Quan thinks it would be worth trying to keep the tigers on the 33,000-hectare South African reserve. But she knows that opposition from conservationists would be fierce, quipping: "Politics in conservation is worse than in fashion."
Tigers, who need large areas to survive, have suffered from human competition for space. China's burgeoning economy has pushed the species from 40,000 in 1900 to near-extinction today.
"The first 50 years was war and chaos and the next 50 years was habitat destruction and modernization," Quan says.
As for the tiny cub, he is now being hand-fed by humans after unseasonably cold weather prompted his separation from his mother to avoid any risk of death from exposure. He will be reunited with Cathay as soon as possible.
"I have to force myself to think of him as a normal baby, otherwise I would worry about every single thing," says handler Kim Hiltrop of her precious charge.
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