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Fighting for tigers, and the last word

A Beijing-born former fashion executive tries to save the South China cats through her reserve in South Africa and silence her detractors.

March 07, 2008|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

Behind the wheel of a hefty SUV, Quan touches the accelerator with her delicate lilac loafer. She's wearing shorts and a sequined cardigan with a kitten design and has features as fine as bone porcelain -- a girlish demeanor that leads some to underestimate her, overlooking her steely core.

She edges the vehicle over the bank of a river onto a rocky ledge, looking for Cathay and her mate, TigerWoods, parents of the cub. They killed a blesbok -- a small antelope -- the night before, and Cathay is in thick scrubby trees by the river, the tigers' favorite haunt, finishing off the carcass. She gazes languidly at the vehicle.

"You can see their confidence. Once they have learned to hunt, they can hunt anywhere," Quan says.

She was born in 1962 in the wake of a three-year famine in China, and grew up during the Cultural Revolution, when the country was poor and intellectuals were humiliated and sent to labor camps for "reeducation." She befriended every stray cat she could.

After graduating from Beijing University in 1984, she was assigned a prestigious job as an anchor for CCTV but rejected it, knowing she was too outspoken to survive in such a post.

Eventually, she decided to study in America, graduating in business studies at Wharton. She became Gucci's licensing manager in Milan, Italy, before marrying Bray and giving up her career. She says she always had two passions in her life: tigers and anthropology. She launched her foundation, Save China's Tigers, after a dinner-party conversation, when a friend complained she was wasting her talent.

But another talent seems to be her ability to set critics' teeth on edge, from the ease and speed with which she negotiated the tiger deal with the Chinese government (critics said she was being manipulated) to the fact that she was pictured cuddling the newborn cub (they said she set a bad example).

She keeps Persian cats in her London home and says they've helped her understand tiger behavior. But she is no softy.

"I don't cry very easily," she says. "I cried when Hope died. Emotionally, I was devastated. And I cried when the cub was born, out of happiness."

The cub, born on a freezing November night at the end of the Southern Hemisphere spring, had to be taken from Cathay not because she rejected him but because she did not lick him dry or warm him.

The cub has spent his first 2 1/2 months in a specialist zoo, where he squalls loudly for attention and leaps playfully on visitors. He will return to the reserve after his final vaccination, when he is 4 months old. A competition to name him has attracted more than 7,000 entries in China alone, a sign of growing awareness of tiger conservation.

One evening, as Quan checks on the tigers, her favorite, Madonna, walks to the fence and chuffs excitedly at her, puffing out air in a tiger greeting. She prowls along the fence as Quan follows on her side.

The next morning after dawn, TigerWoods is lying in the grass when Cathay spots a blesbok. She stiffens and lopes closer. The blesbok easily skirts her, skipping away into the grass toward the hidden TigerWoods, who leaps up in ambush. The terrified blesbok races back toward Cathay, the stronger hunter, who sprints toward it. But the blesbok changes direction and escapes across the river. The tigers follow it for a while before flopping down near the river.

Two days later, they do manage to kill it. That week, in early February, the tigers killed five blesboks released in the enclosure; Cathay's larger-than-usual appetite and the fact she has not displayed her monthly estrous cycle have Laohu staff convinced she is again pregnant.

Many doubted the tigers would learn the art of hunting in the flat Karoo plains, with limited cover for predators. At first, the young tigers would charge across the open ground, allowing their prey to escape easily. But they quickly learned to stalk and ambush the blesboks.

There were some hard lessons. Hope was bitten by a baboon. Madonna at one point got dehydrated.

"There's no exact recipe," Openshaw, the game ranger, says. "They don't have the mother to teach them to pluck the feathers off a guinea fowl or break open a springbok. They have to learn by trial and error. The first couple of kills have to be quite easy. Then you make the process more difficult."

As a child, Openshaw spent most of his time in the bush, catching snakes and spiders. Initially skeptical about Quan's project, he changed his mind on learning the animals would be not be roaming wild and gobbling down South Africa's own endangered species.

"Even today, when we went into the enclosure and we saw TigerWoods and Cathay, at no stage did they come up and beg for food; it proves that they're on the right track," he says.

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