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.
Saving The Stripes
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.
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.