Tigerwoods and Tiger 327 assess each
other across an electrified fence
A programme to save the endangered South China species of tiger has got under way at a nature reserve in South Africa.

Officials at the reserve hope to breed the programme's latest Chinese tiger with another tiger at the reserve in the hope of later re-introducing the animal into its natural habitat.

"This is a very ambitious and exciting project to take the South China tigers out of zoos and into the wilds," Peter Openshaw, the reserve's manager, told Al Jazeera.

The South China tiger faces extinction, with only about a hundred of them in captivity and by some estimates these are all that is left. There are possibly none remains in the wild.

Tigers are not found naturally in Africa, the animal's natural habitat ranges across Asia and the Indian sub-continent, but the programme is taking place in South Africa's Free State.

South China tiger

The South China tiger is also known as the Amoy, or Xiamen tiger.

It is one of the smallest subspecies. The male usually measures about 2.5m from head to tail and weighs about 150kg, while the female measures about 2.3m and weighs a little over 100kg.

The South China is considered to be the "stem" tiger, the subspecies from which all other tigers evolved.

The tiger is the third sign in the Chinese horoscope and features prominently in Chinese tradition.

In 1959 Mao Zedong, in the time of the Great Leap Forward, declared the tiger and other predators to be pests and "enemies of the people".

The newest tiger to arrive at the reserve, Tiger 327, is expected to mate with Cathay, a four year old South China tiger who has been at the reserve all her life.

At the reserve, people are hopeful for the mating programme's success.

When introduced to Tiger 327, Cathay rolled over to show her belly, a sign that she was interested.

Across from Cathay's enclosure, Madonna and Tigerwoods, two more tigers, could observe the new arrival.

Tigerwoods and Tiger 327 initially spent several minutes glaring at each other across an electrified fence, Tiger 327’s first close encounter with another male.

"We've got our hopes on 327 – if for some reason he doesn’t bond with Cathay then Madonna will be his second choice," said Openshaw.

Out in the wild

But to survive in the wild, the tigers will also need to learn skills that, left in captivity, they have yet to develop.

The tigers eat every two or three days, but in captivity they do not hunt for themselves. Instead, Openshaw "hunts" for them.

The meal needs to be as fresh as possible so he goes out to kill an antelope and brings it to the tigers by truck.

Openshaw hopes the tigers will breed and pass
on their natural skills to the cubs
"I only use this vehicle [the truck] for feeding, so when they see this vehicle they associate it with food," said Openshaw.

"We don’t want them to pick up bad habits and associate all vehicles with food."

Slowly, the tigers are learning to follow their instincts.

Cathay has already learnt some of the skills she will need to survive in the wild. Dragging the meal into the bushes to protect it from other predators and using her paws to hold it while she eats.

She will need to teach these skills to her cubs, if she and Tiger 327 have any, as it will be her cubs which will be released back into the wilds of South China.

Source: Al Jazeera