Inserting Captive-Bred Tigers Into the Wild: Will it Work?

By Joseph Allchin

Dhaka, Bangladesh–The South China tiger has not been seen in the wild since the 1960s. Although Chinese delegates at a global tiger conference in Dhaka, Bangladesh this week are reluctant to admit it is extinct in the wild, it might as well be, because no confirmed sightings have been made since the 1970s. There were under 60 of the subspecies left in zoos worldwide in 2002.

However there is now hope that captive tigers can be trained to be reintroduced and function in the wild for the first time in decades.

“It is exciting,” says Brad Nilson from Conservation Finance International. “This was controversial, even crazy stuff 20 years ago when we wrote about it, but now its gained acceptability.”

The functional extinction of the South China tiger, after China’s Communist Party declared it an “enemy of the people” for killing livestock, has meant that this was the only route to saving what is viewed as one of the most endangered animals on the planet. With conservators in China reluctant to inter-breed the animals with other subspecies; “we have had to be very careful about how we optimize breeding,” notes Nilson, who is working on the program. With so few animals left, there are risks of inbreeding.

Five South China tigers were taken from Shanghai Zoo to a converted South African sheep farm where they could be “re-wilded.” Within a few years one of the refugee tigers named Tiger Woods was fathering babies born, perhaps for the first time in decades, in at least a semi-wild condition. There are now 18 South China tigers in South Africa, giving hope that this animal may thrive once more. “We’ve gone from around 50 to 110 since 2002,” says Nilson. “It’s safe to say its the only subspecies that has doubled, which makes a major contribution to the global aim of doubling the population by 2022,” he adds.

Back in China a pilot reserve to host the first re-wilded tigers in their natural habitat has been identified and developed in Jianxi province.

While the South China tiger is perhaps the most ambitious program,  it is by no means the only project to reintroduce tigers to the wild. Kazakhstan saw its last Caspian tiger in 1948 near the Ily river in the Balkhash region. While the specific Caspian tiger subspecies is extinct, scientists studying the genes of preserved specimens note remarkable similarity with the Amur or Siberian tiger, which continues to exist wild in Russia’s far east and in captivity. As a result, Dr. Igor Chestin of WWF hopes to reintroduce tigers into the wild in Kazakhstan’s marshy Balkhash region within the next few years.

“We first need to establish populations of prey in the area,” says Chestin, who has received approval from Kazakhstan’s government for the project. The process of building up prey numbers has begun with reintroduction of the enigmatic Saiga antelope, boar and other species into the wetlands south of lake Balkhash. Chestin also notes that there are around 400 households grazing livestock in the area. “We hope to eliminate grazing, its not a traditional grazing area,” he says.

Cambodia is also keen to start a re-wilding program, restoring what was once a copious population of tigers.

“There are many many places where restoration could occur,” says Mike Baltzer, head of the WWF’s Tigers Alive Initiative. “But it’s very expensive and complicated. Some areas have lost just tigers, others both tigers and prey. Reintroducing tigers is the easier part, protecting the site and prey base is even more complex.”

To re-wild, tiger cubs must be taken from captivity at an early age and provided with a steady supply of live, wild prey in order to train them how to hunt and survive in the wild. Conservators must then attempt to reintroduce the animals gradually into the wild, attempting to ensure that appropriate breeding partners are in the range and also calculating that the animals are ready to adapt.

“We have five orphaned cubs in Russia’s far east,” said Chestin. “Experiences with India has been mainly with orphans, but theoretically it should be the same with with animals from zoos,” he added. Another possibility for reintroduction of tigers into a specific area is taking animals from elsewhere in the wild in Russia. “But “we need to wait for the census, to see where there are potential source populations,” Chestin said. Tiger Range Countries (TRCs) are planning a global census on tiger numbers later this year.

Forums such as this week’s Second Global Tiger Stock Taking Conference in Dhaka, which is part of one of the first serious international collaborations on tiger preservation, have given tiger range countries (TRCs) much needed opportunity to collaborate in the make-or-break struggle to save tigers from extinction. Funded by the World Bank through its Global Tiger Initiative (GTI), the meeting has helped TRCs with experience-sharing in delicate and crucial issues. “There is more co-ordination, and countries being held to account for specific actionable tasks. The GTI isn’t  just creating momentum anymore, it is also now getting results,” says Nilson.













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