tiger, tiger

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The Siberian tiger (Panthera tigris altaica), also known as the Amur, Manchurian, Ussuri, or Northeast tiger, is the largest of the tiger family. Adult males measure up to 4m – from the tips of nose to tail – and weigh over 300kg.

For more than 5 million years, Siberian tigers roamed Western and Central Asia and eastern Russia, and were famed for their strong build and fierce temper, although not feared as a ‘man-eater’, like India’s Bengal tiger. But over the past century, the population has dwindled rapidly, with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) including the species in its list of top 10 endangered animals.

However, it is not widely known that since January 1986 there has been a ‘tiger center’ for the conservation of the Si-berian tiger. It is hidden in snowy forests in Hengdaohezi, the home of the Northeast tiger, at the foot of Mount Hufeng in the Wandashan mountain forest region of northeastern China. Established over 20 years ago by the Chinese National Forest Ministry and Administrative office, along with the Heilongjiang Provincial Government, as the world’s first tiger sanctuary, the Chinese Felidae Animal Breeding and Feeding Center began with just eight tigers. Today, after a sustained effort, the resident population has grown to nearly 900.

I became involved in taking photos at the center through my good friend and neighbour Liu Xinchen, now Director of the center. On one of my first encounters, I was getting close to ‘shoot’ a tiger about to devour live prey, when it turned its attention to me – less than 100m away. My feet were rooted to the ground, but fortunately the driver came hurtling toward me and dragged me inside the vehicle just as the tiger swiped. The big cat then jumped onto the bon-net and smashed the windscreen.

According to a Chinese proverb, ‘No one dares to touch a tiger’s behind’, but military doctors do. Generally, a tiger neither allows others to enter his territory nor to get close to him, especially his rear end. A decade ago, however, faced by a lack of professional tiger veterinarians, the Felidae Center asked military doctors to step into the role to help cure sick cats. Dr. Lui offered his assistance, but his first encounter nearly cost him his life.

It happened on August 30, 1999, and as he recounts the episode to me, my heart flutters with fear and my hair stands on end. At that time, the level of anaesthetics required to sedate such a big cat was still in the trial stage, so to avoid excessive amounts of sedative which could cause disability or death, small quantities were administered every five minutes. After three doses, the tiger was sedated sufficiently for a three-hour operation to remove a tumour to com-mence. But because the tiger’s fur was so thick, the ultrasound equipment could not provide an internal image, so the cat had to be partly shaved.

An hour into the operation, someone shouted “tiger is waking up!”, and with that, the beast stood upright and the five surgeons bolted for the door, while another voice yelled, “Close the door!” After another quickly-administered dose of anaesthetic the operation continued, but to this day surgeons position themselves close to the door, for a quick exit, with the tiger’s head always facing inward and away from them. As a further precaution, surgery does not begin until slaps to the tiger’s behind – the most sensitive part of the animal’s body – draw no response.

Lover’s duel

December to February is mating season for tigers. During this period a male tiger ‘extends’ his territory only to allow females to draw near or pass by, while other males are fiercely fended off. Tigers show their amorous intentions by roaring, licking, and rubbing each other, and sometimes males fight each other when competing for mates. Mean-while, the tigress at the center of their attention just stands and watches silently, awaiting the victor.

At the Felidae Center, a tiger named ‘Beauty’ (tiger 204) is the star and queen of all the fighting males. She is be-loved for her beautiful figure, near-flawless appearance, and smooth, shiny coat. Over many years she has given birth to more than 30 cubs, including a set of triplets and a rare quintuplet birth. Beauty is also praised as ‘hero mom’ for her unusually maternal nature, taking good care of every baby. All the males love Beauty, but she is very choosy about who she mates with, usually favouring the ‘kings’ of each generation. Thus, she has spawned and raised cubs who have in turn become kings of their own groups. In June 2009, Beauty again broke a record by giving birth to six cubs.

Beauties and Beasts

The first tiger cub birth at the center was in 1987. Under the guidance of Director Liu, staff kept a round-the-clock vigil near the pregnant mother. But when her cub (which was her first) was born, she rejected it. Carers were left with no choice but to separate the two, and the cub was fed by a surrogate mother – a dog – and artificially fed and looked after by a small group of women. (Incidentally, most of those women are now retired, but their daughters have since taken up their mantle.) That first cub survived, and slept with the women until it was three months old. Now at the center, most tiger mothers feed their cubs themselves, but in special circumstances, such as the birth of triplets or even quintuplets, some cubs need to be fed by raisers. Accordingly, the center has acquired valuable experience in the artificial feeding of tiger cubs.

Returning Northeast tigers to the wild

To accelerate the adapting and returning of tigers to the wild, the center set up two separate reserves. Hengdaohezi breeding base, at the foot of Mt. Hufeng, has around 200 tigers, while the training base in north Harbin houses over 700, both locations offering a good ecological environment.

Each day, using live animals and birds, trainers teach the tigers how to hunt food, just as they would in the wild. Dur-ing such exercises, carers were surprised to observe how good tigers are at climbing trees, contrary to another Chi-nese saying: ‘The tiger is the disciple of a cat – the cat taught tiger all skills but climbing up trees’.

Vehicles used at the reserves are often attacked by tigers, and once, a tiger astonishingly opened a vehicle door. Fortunately, the attendants ran away, leaving behind a chicken – to which the tiger quickly switched its attention!

Saving these tigers from extinction is becoming increasingly challenging as the 21st century progresses. While re-turning captive tigers to the wild is yet some years away, for the foreseeable future at least the areas of both reserves are set to expand, giving these magnificent beasts a larger area in which to roam, separated from humans.

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