The story of the South China tiger (Panthera tigris amoyensis) is among the most compelling, if tragic, conservation stories in Asia. The progenitor of all modern tigers, it is now the most threatened cat in the world: It is extinct in China’s forests and near extinction in China’s zoos. Despite this impending tragedy, the South China tiger remains China’s most powerful cultural icon of wilderness.
Since 2000, the Minnesota Zoo has worked hand-in-hand with the Department of Wildlife Management in the State Forestry Administration (SFA) of China to explore options for the future recovery of this critically endangered subspecies. As Asia’s dominant predator, tigers need vast areas that support abundant prey living in productive forest ecosystems.
The long-term goal of the full project is to restore the forest ecosystem and return free-ranging self-sustaining populations of South China tigers and their prey at forest reserves in south-central China while sharply reducing threats to the globally threatened species that now occupy the reserves. This is a bold plan China is committed to implementing.
What we are proposing is the improbable, if not impossible, dream – the first large-scale recovery of tigers in the wild in Asia.Read more
In early-1995, CBSG formed a team of tiger zoo specialists, coordinated by the Minnesota Zoo, to visit the four primary Chinese zoos holding South China tigers. This effort resulted in the development of the Chinese South China Tiger Studbook and CAZG South China Tiger Master Plan. Later in the year the South China Tiger team returned to train zoo staff at Shanghai, Suzhou, Chongqing and Guangzhou Zoos regarding general medical and management procedures. Physical examinations and biomaterial collection procedures were performed on 22 South China tigers and sperm was cryopreserved from six tigers, leading to the establishment of a Genome Resource Bank for South China tigers.
The situation prevailing at that time was that no wild tigers had been seen by officials in more than 20 years, and the last wild tiger brought into captivity was captured 20 years ago. There were 21 tiger reserves listed by the Chinese Ministry within the presumed historical range of the tiger, but there was no evidence that tigers were still present.
From 2000-2003, Minnesota Zoo staff and Chinese colleagues conducted a comprehensive field survey to determine where and how many tigers remained in the wild. To our great disappointment, we found no evidence of wild tigers after 18 months.
In 2005, SFA appointed the South China Tiger Advisory Office (based at the Minnesota Zoo) to provide the necessary technical and financial support for China’s long-term efforts to restore tigers. In 2006 a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to carry out this program between the National Wildlife and Reseach Development Center and the Advisory Office was signed. Our vision is to develop a model for restoring degraded forest ecosystems and recovering wild tiger populations.
In 2007, SFA approved several site selection criteria (developed by the Advisory Office) for the reintroduction of wild tiger populations. Work completed in 2008 confirmed three National Nature Reserves met all of the criteria. In 2008 an important document was produced: A South China Tiger Recovery Concept Plan, and in 2009 a comprehensive Implementation Plan.
Currently, the government of China is considering making the South China Tiger Recovery Program one of its highest species conservation priorities. The recovery program will be initiated in a National Nature Reserve within the historical range of the South China tiger, but before this can occur SFA will establish a “tiger expert team” to census the sites in five provinces to decide where is the most appropriate place to begin. Their criteria, beyond the primarily “ecological” criteria we used, will include “socio-economical” (where and how many people living in the nature reserve will be effected), and “economical” (ability of the provincial government to help the central government co-finance the program. They are scheduled to have their decision sometime in fall 2010.