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Tiger, Tiger Burning Bright

Ferocious in the wild, yet one of the most beautiful creatures ever to walk the earth, the Siberian tiger is being given a new lease on life at a remote breeding centre in northeastern China.

Words: Travel 3Sixty⁰ Editorial & Wang Yuanchang Photography: Wang Yuanchang

For over five million years, Siberian tigers roamed western and central Asia and, eastern Russia, and were famed for their strong build and ferocious temper, although not feared as a ‘man-eater’ like the Bengal tiger of India. Sadly, over the past century, the population has dwindled rapidly, forcing World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) to add the species to its list of top 10 endangered animals.

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A pair of adult Siberian tigers wait patiently in the snow for a potential meal.

Saving The Stripes

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Siberian tigers can run extremely fast, clocking up to 80kms an hour.

While the total population of this species is fast dwindling, not many are aware that a lifeline has been cast to arrest the decline via a tiger breeding and conservation facility. Founded in 1986, the facility is tucked away in the snowy forests of Hengdaohezi at the foot of Mount Hufeng in the Wandashan region of northeastern China. Established by the Chinese National Forest Ministry and Administrative office and, the Heilongjiang Provincial Government, the Chinese Felidae Animal Breeding and Feeding Center is touted as the world’s first tiger sanctuary and began operations with just eight cubs. At present, after a lengthy but sustainable effort, the centre is home to over 1,000 tigers. Though faced with many seemingly impossible hurdles and stumbling blocks, the centre has proven many skeptics wrong and is testament to its breeding and conservation programmes.

Catch A Tiger By The Tail

There is a Chinese proverb  老虎屁股摸不得 that roughly translates to ‘No one dares touch a tiger’s behind’. This is also true in the literal sense as tigers are very territorial and will not suffer kindly other animals trespassing in their domain. Additionally, these cats do not appreciate other creatures, man included, creeping up from behind – hence the proverb. But for the sake of survival, military doctors had to take on the dangerous job of treating and providing care for the cats, even if it meant creeping up from behind. Initially, lacking proper professional care from veterinarians, the centre had to resort to asking help from military doctors to treat, cure and care for these creatures. One such person is Dr Liu, who had no experience treating animals, let alone tigers. Some 12 years ago in 1999, when he was first asked to attend to the cats, Liu was less than enthusiastic about the opportunity. He wasn’t given much choice though and had to attend to them. “I was very nervous and even now, my heart beats faster and my hair stands on end when I think about the day,” recalled Liu of his first brush with the cats.

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An ambush of tigers chasing after a bird, though not necessarily for food. These cats can be very playful at times.

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Though a ferocious creature, the tiger often also exhibits curiosity and playfulness.

     At that time, the dosage of anaesthetics to be administered to the cats was still at testing stage. To avoid death or disability from overdose, Liu and his fellow doctors had to very slowly and carefully, anaesthetise the tiger every five minutes. Eventually, after three dosages, the cat finally went into deep sleep and the doctors were able to perform the delicate procedure. But just one hour later, the animal started to stir and someone in the team cried: “The tiger is waking up!” Within a minute or so, the tiger had stood up, sending all the doctors fleeing, heading for the door.

The Siberian tiger (Panthera tigris altaica), also known as the Amur, Manchurian, Ussuri or Northeast tiger, is the largest in the tiger family. Adult males can measure up to three metres from tip of nose to tail and, weigh over 300kgs!

According to Liu, someone else had the good sense to lock the door, forcing the doctors to return to the operating table and continue working on the tiger. Again, they administered the anaesthetics slowly and completed the surgery. Till today, the doctors ensure the tiger’s head is facing away from the door, so that the team can bolt from the operation theatre in the event the tiger comes around and decides it doesn’t fancy having its behind poked and prodded by human beings.

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The centre was established in the wild to recreate the tiger’s natural habitat, allowing them to enjoy lush grassland.

Beauty And Her Beasts

For the Siberian tiger, December to February is mating season. The male is very territorial during this period, allowing only females to enter his domain. Another male entering its territory will result in ferocious fighting. 

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A cub finds security and assurance in its mother’s embrace.

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Tigers are highly alert and are always aware of what’s moving about in their surroundings.

     While the males fight it out to establish superiority, the females quietly watch from the sidelines to see who emerges victorious. Once a clear winner is identified, the female will saunter up and offer itself to the victor. This is believed to be a natural form of evolution that helps the species survive by ensuring only the healthiest males father the next generation of tigers. While the males are the proverbial testosterone laden creatures that occupy the highest rung in the pecking order, the females are no slouches either. One fine specimen named Beauty ( 大美人)deserves star billing for her exquisite figure, shiny fur and sleek appearance. Beauty has given birth to over 30 cubs, once a set of triplets and quintuplets too! She is also frequently called a ‘hero mom’ for her maternal instincts in caring for her brood, often protecting the little uns’ and even standing guard over them during heavy down pour. This is something seldom seen in the tiger kingdom as the animal is known to be very independent, indifferent even. 

     Beauty is also a shrewd tigress when it comes to choosing her mating partners. The matriarch selects the best amongst the male to lie with and will never allow tigers of a lesser stature to get even close. All her cubs have grown up to become healthy tigers themselves, proving the veracity of the theory of how the female mates with only the strongest to produce healthy offspring.

Artificial Cat Mothers

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Mating season for the Siberian tigers is between December and February.

The first cub was born at the centre in 1987. Liu and his fellow officers kept vigil day and night, taking care of the pregnant tigress. Soon, the mother produced a healthy cub but with it, a new set of problems arose. It being the tigress’ first pregnancy, she didn’t quite know how to feed her newborn and kept pushing the babe away. The poor cub mewed pitifully, hungry and in need of motherly love but to no avail. Fearing the worst, Liu and his team decided they had to save the young tiger by allowing it to suckle from a female dog that had recently produced a litter of pups. The separation also deprived the cub from being licked by its natural mother in creating the bond so important for it to survive. Again, the team improvised by using their fingers and wet cotton swabs to imitate a similar action, ensuring the cub experienced the gentle licks it would have received from its own mother.

     At present, almost all the mothers feed and care for their own cubs but in certain cases where the mothers produce triplets and quintuplets, the care providers swing into action and become instant surrogate mothers for the cubs. Based on this experience, staff members at the centre are highly trained in artificial feeding procedures. Beginning with retired female workers who helped out to feed the cubs, the centre has grown with some of the daughters of these women taking over from their mothers and grandmothers in continuing the service and tradition.

Born Wild, Born Free

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The Siberian tiger is very comfortable with its cold environment. In winter, its fur thickens to withstand freezing temperatures while warmer months see its coat shortening.

The goal of the centre is to breed, rehabilitate and eventually release the beasts back into the wild. To accelerate the process of returning the cats to their natural habitat, the centre set up two wild life reserves in Hengdaohezi Breeding Centre, which has about 200 tigers, and another reserve near Harbin that has over 900 tigers.

     Each day, the trainers release live animals like chickens and sheep to train the cats to hunt for food in the wild. With this constant reinforcement of their natural environment, the tigers grow stronger and learn hunting skills quickly. They even grow adept at scaling trees, which is a rarity for tigers. 

     These creatures are also amazingly smart and know how to look for food in the vehicles that drive up to the base to feed them. Once a tiger even managed to open the door of a vehicle, but luckily the staff managed to climb to safety.

     The local government estimates that by 2050, a major exercise in testing the efficiency of the programme will be undertaken, as it takes that long to gauge success. Plans are also afoot to widen the size of the centre and the reserves, banning hunting and even human occupation of nearby areas.

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The care providers at the centre were initially retired women. Soon after, their daughters and granddaughters joined the centre in caring for the tigers and their cubs.

     Preventing the Siberian tiger from becoming extinct has become increasingly challenging at present. The centre has, to a certain extent, been successful but the rate is still overshadowed by the declining numbers of tigers in the wild. As this amazing animal fights its most ferocious battle to survive, the dedicated team at the Chinese Felidae Animal Breeding and Feeding Center continues grabbing the tiger by its tail, dicing with death themselves in ensuring this beast survives yet another century. www.weihushan.org.cn/tiger/en/

GETTING THERE AirAsia flies to various Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, Chonqing, Wuhan, Xi’an, Nanning, Kunming, Hangzhou, Guangzhou, Guilin, and Shenzhen in mainland China. Go to www.airasia.com for details. 

The Tiger In Chinese Astrology

The tiger is the third sign in the Chinese zodiac and is a symbol of bravery. This courageous animal was revered by the ancient Chinese as it is a symbol said to prevent the three main tragedies to befall a household: Fire, thieves and ghosts. People born in the year of the tiger are generally well liked because of their charismatic and outgoing personalities. They are straightforward, instinctive and smart, but are tenacious, suspicious and often act hastily. Those born in the year of the tiger are compatible with those born in the year of the horse, dog and dragon.

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Although a solitary animal in the wild, the female tigers at the centre prove to be very dedicated mothers who watch after their cubs until they can fend for themselves.

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