Rewilding the South China Tiger

By Save Chinas Tigers, PRNE
Wednesday, November 2, 2011

LONDON, November 3, 2011 -


The South China tiger (Panthera tigris amoyensis) was the victim of government-sponsored wildlife extermination teams operating from 1952 to 1970s.  If the South China tiger exists at all in the wild, it is extremely rare.  Captive facilities contained 91 individuals in 2009.  Save China’s Tigers, a not-for profit charity, was created to re-introduce the South China tiger in southern China.  We provide background, an update, and future plans for the re-establishment of the South China tiger into its natural habitat.


The South China tiger (Panthera tigris amoyensis) is the rarest of five extant tiger subspecies and is at best extremely rare and might well be extinct in the wild.  Between 1952 and the mid 1970s government-sponsored wildlife elimination teams removed wildlife, including tigers, from China.  A recent plan to reverse the decline of tigers globally does not include protecting the South China tiger and its habitat (Walston et al. 2010).  Captive facilities in China house 82 individuals and the rewilding center in South Africa has 9 individuals.  The State Forestry Administration of China has endorsed re-establishing the South China tiger into several protected areas in the tiger’s former geographic area.

Save China’s Tigers, with offices registered in the UK, USA, Hong Kong, Australia and China was created in 2000, 2001, 2003, and 2011 respectively with the goal of re-establishing a genetically viable population of free-ranging South China tigers in restored native habitat through a program of captive breeding, rewilding, restoring the ecosystem and prey base, and releasing tigers in China, henceforth called the Chinese Tiger Reintroduction Project.

In 2002 Save China’s Tigers acquired the use of 17 sheep farms totaling approximately 33,000 ha near Philippolis, Free State/Northern Cape Provinces, South Africa.  Over several years Laohu Valley was created by removing livestock and fences, and installing solar powered predator-proof fencing.  In 2002 Save China’s Tigers and the National Wildlife Research and Development Center of the State Forestry Administration of China entered into a joint venture to implement this project.  Laohu Valley Reserve is owned by the joint venture and operated for the benefit of the project and so not open to the public and is not a tourist destination.  Unlike another tiger tourist facility adjacent to Laohu Valley, tourists are not permitted entry and no income is derived from “tiger viewing” at Laohu Valley.  

Beginning in 2003, with China’s help, the project acquired two studbook registered South China tiger cubs, a male and female aged 7 and 8 months, respectively.  These tigers were transferred to an enclosure at Mokopane Game Breeding Centre of the South African National Zoological Gardens while preparations were completed at Laohu Valley.  These cubs, familiar only with concrete box display cages, were initially reluctant to leave the concrete pad adjacent to the gate of their otherwise natural enclosure.  

Rewilding Process

We use the term rewilding to refer to a soft release process by which captive-born tigers gradually learn to survive on their own in a large natural enclosure and then they are eventually returned to a more natural environment.  Rewilding is vital as the following examples show.  When they first arrived in South Africa, the two cubs did not recognize a chicken carcass as food and they had to be fed chopped meat. Later, when they were presented with a live chicken, they approached it with curiosity.  The cubs also had to become familiar with a natural environment. The first time their paws touched grass, they shook them as if they had stepped onto a foreign substance.  

Between September, 2003 and December, 2009 four out of five South China tigers moved from China to Laohu Valley Reserves (LVR) survived.  At LVR these tigers produced thirteen cubs of which ten cubs survived.  The rewilding protocol, designed by Gus van Dyk, requires moving tigers among 40 and 100 ha enclosures for breeding and rewilding. Blesbuck (Damaliscus dorcas) was chosen as prey because it is easily managed within fences, readily available from local game farms, and is comparable in size to some native prey in China.  South Africa was the ideal venue for this effort because large blocks of land and a variety of prey species are available, wildlife management practices are well understood and permitted by provincial and federal government, and wildlife managers are familiar with predator and prey management.  

Ten or more blesbuck are released into electrified 40-100 ha enclosures and allowed time to become accustomed to the terrain before 1-3 tigers are released into the enclosure. Hunting success and failure are monitored daily.  According to the rewilding protocol, if a tiger fails to hunt successfully within six days it will be given food so as to maintain its condition.  A tiger’s hunting success is invariably poor immediately following its initial release in stocked enclosure.  Though tigers are able to secure various small prey items such as guinea fowl, they required several months to a year to become effective hunters.  

Our experience clearly demonstrates that captive-born tigers generally do not initially recognize potential prey, and that hunting is a learned behavior.  Though the ability to hunt is innate, the skill necessary to hunt successfully takes many months to learn.  These facts show that a soft release is vital to the rewilding process.  To release captive-born inexperienced sub-adult or adult tigers to a wild area, even one with abundant prey, would be both cavalier and irresponsible.

Rewilding in China

Using captive large felid populations to restore wild populations, as presented by Hunter (1996) and Christie & Seidensticker (1999) and experiences from LVR, offer a strategy for re-establishing South China tigers in China.  Reintroduction in China will follow the IUCN guidelines (ref - IUCN webpage) for species reintroductions and lessons learned from other reintroduction programs, both successful and failed.

South African wildlife management experience suggests that large fenced enclosures are needed. These areas must contain sufficient free ranging wild prey so that animals can learn to hunt on their own. The project is in an early phase, but all second generation tigers (except those born recently) have also passed the first stage of rewilding. They now hunt on their own. The next stage is to prepare reintroduction sites in China and to build up natural prey at these sites.  

Dr. Jim Sanderson, Small Wild Cat Conservation Foundation,
Petri Viljoen, Save China’s Tigers,
Dr. Gary Koehler, 2218 Stephanie Brooke, Wenatchee, WA 98801 USA,
Dr. Nobuyuki Yamaguchi, Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences, Qatar University,
Dr. Laurie Marker, Cheetah Conservation Fund,
Dr. Peter Crawshaw, Centro Nacional de Pesquisa e Conservacão de Mamiferos Carnivoros, Cenap/ICMBIO,
Dr. James L. David Smith, Dept. Fisheries, Wildlife & Conservation Biology, University of Minnesota,
Christine Pienaar, Department of Environment & Nature Conservation, Northern Cape Province, South Africa,
Lu Jun, National Wildlife Research and Development Center, State Forestry Administration, Beijing,
Li Quan, Save China’s Tigers,
Stuart Bray, Save China’s Tigers,


We thank the State Forestry Administration of China, the Free State Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, the Department of Environment & Nature Conservation, Northern Cape Province, South Africa, and Mr. Gus van Dyk.

Photos of the project:


Du Toit, J. and C. Marais. 2010. South African Country Life. Tigers of the Free State. Pages 30-33.

Hunter, L. 1996. Secondary Reintroductions of Large Cats in Africa, Cat News 14.

Christie, S. and J. Seidensticker. 1999. Riding the Tiger, [complete reference]

Walston, J. J.G. Robinson, E. L. Bennett, U. Breitenmoser, G. A. B. da Fonseca, J. Goodrich, M. Gumal, L. Hunter, A. Johnson, K. U. Karanth, N. Leader-Williams, K. MacKinnon, D. Miquelle, A. Pattanavibool, C. Poole, A. Rabinowitz, J. L. D. Smith, E. J. Stokes, S. N. Stuart, C. Vongkhamheng, and H. Wibisono. 2010. Bringing the tiger back from the brink - The six percent solution. PLoS Biology 8(9): e1000485doi:10. 1371/journal.pbio.1000485.

Contact: Susan Long,, +(44)07507668246


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