August 22, 2005

Rare Chinese tiger dies in S.African reserve

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - A rare Chinese tiger brought to South Africa to learn how to hunt has died, dealing a fresh blow to efforts to save the species from extinction.

Born in a Chinese zoo, "Hope" was sent to South Africa as a cub with his mate "Cathay" in 2003 for a pioneering experiment seen by some as the last chance to preserve the species -- a "rewilding program" to encourage the animals to hunt on their own.

"Hope had an infection and he stopped eating meat. He died on Saturday evening," Li Quan, the founder of the "Save China's Tigers" foundation, told Reuters on Monday.

With only about 10 to 30 left in the wild and another 60 in captivity, the Chinese sub-species of the tiger clan is perched precariously on the brink of extinction.

"There are no cubs this year in Chinese zoos, which really underscores the urgency of the project," said Quan.

Hope and Cathay were taught to hunt at the Laohu Valley Reserve in South Africa's Free State province -- at first killing birds, and then graduating to antelope.

The plan had been that they would impart their skills to any cubs they might eventually produce, who would be sent to a reserve in China.

A younger breeding pair, Madonna and Tiger Woods, arrived in South Africa in October last year for the project.