Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Tigers Oh My!

Game Park Struggles to Deal with Surplus Tigers

Undoubtedly, there are places in China where animal conservation is the responsibility of trained, caring professionals fully conversant with the most progressive zoological practices and steeped in a love of four-legged critters that is both profound and humane.

To my uneducated eye, however, this was not the case at the Heilongjiang Siberian Tiger Park in Harbin, at least when I visited three years ago. The park is in the news today (Reuters via China Digital Times) because it is going to try to release some of its Siberian tigers into a protected area near the North Korean border.

Good luck.

On the day I visited the park, I signed up for a special tour that included a tiger feeding. We were driven into the main compound, a Guantanamo-esque affair of cyclone fence and concertina wire, in a rattly little bus, to await the arrival of the vittles.

We parked in the middle of a mélange of lounging tigers, some of whom sat up alertly right underneath the windows and gazed up at us intently with an unnerving “I am using my binocular vision to triangulate my spring, but what is this weird, watery material between me and the helpless humans” look.

They were distracted by the arrival of a little truck with a covered bed. The driver stopped the truck and activated a hydraulic control. The bed of the truck tipped up and a bewildered ox slid forlornly to the ground. The cow was promptly covered by a tiger scrum and dispatched with a practiced, bloodless nonchalance that was perhaps lost on the amazed (and a few horrified) human onlookers.

Fortunately, we were spared the gory spectacle of an actual tiger feed. The tigers, obviously well-fed, rasped and tugged at the kill in a desultory fashion before wandering off around the compound.

Later, as I toured the catwalks surrounding the main compound, vendors offered to sell live chickens for about $1 U.S., which they would then pitch over the fence to the tigers. Again, the tigers seemed to be in it more for the sport than the nutrition. The ground was littered with dead but uneaten chickens and a few tigers were padding about with tattered chicken-feather moustaches.

The game park had been very successful in breeding the tigers. In fact, it was so crowded that the fiercely territorial and solitary dominant males couldn’t handle it. They were killing off the junior males and had to be kept in solitary confinement in a separate yard.

Cranky tigers are not the only fallout from the overly successful breeding program, as Xinhua reported in August of this year:

More tigers, less funds: Chinese park faces dilemma

A northeast China park is having trouble making ends meet as its population of critically-endangered Siberian tigers climbs by more than 100 a year.

"We're very happy to see new cubs being born, but we're worried about how to feed them properly with our limited funds," said Wang Ligang, manager of Heilongjiang Siberian Tiger Park, the world's largest artificial breeding base for the endangered big cats.

The park, located in the suburbs of provincial capital Harbin, has more than 700 Siberian tigers.

"Each carnivore eats 80 yuan (10 US dollars) of raw meat a day, which adds up to 20 million yuan (2.5 million US dollars) a year for all 700 tigers," said Wang.

The cash-strapped park only makes 12 million yuan (1.5 million US dollars) a year out of ticket sales, he said.


Chief engineer Liu Dan said the park had 620 Siberian tigers last year and more than 80 cubs were born between January and July this year.

"Twenty to 30 cubs will be born in the coming months. We expect the tiger population to expand to 730 by the end of the year," he said.

In 2003, a staff member confided to me that they had tried to dispose of some of the excess inventory by releasing some tigers in remote parts of China’s Northeast.

But, amazingly! The tigers were habituated to humans, unafraid of motor vehicles, and showed a distinct preference for raiding stockyards and killing cattle, much to the chagrin of the local farmers.

Wonder how that happened.

According to the Sept. 25, 2006 Reuters article:

[An official with the Siberian Tiger Artificial Propagation Base] said trial release of 12 tigers four years ago was promising -- though ten of those tigers were now back in captivity.


Another more entrepreneurial solution to the surplus--call it Rent-a-Tiger--didn’t work out so well, either:

From People’s Daily, in December 2002:

Missing worker confirmed eaten by Siberian tiger in NE China

A worker missing for more than two weeks from the Changbai Mountain Siberian Tiger Park was believed to be killed and eaten by Siberian Tigers in the park, a security official with northeast China's JilinProvincial Forestry Bureau said Saturday.

Zhang Chuanjun, the official, said investigations show Liu Jinling was killed by the tigers when he acted against regulations to entered the park without taking any protective measures.

...the park is a private tourist site which opened to visitors in July this year.

It now has 12 Siberian Tigers, rented from a Siberian Tiger park in Harbin, capital of neighboring Heilongjiang Province.

Liu, a patrol worker, went missing on Nov. 18. Later, pieces of his clothing and body were found in the park. It is believed that Liu was killed by the tigers before he was eaten. At the time of his patrol, the Siberian Tigers had been released from their cages and were roaming free around the park.

As it is currently the snowy season, most park workers were on vacation and Liu was left to oversee the tiger park. Rather than following regulations to use a special vehicle when the tigers are released, evidence shows Liu took a short cut and was found by the tigers.

Zhang Chuanjun said that the park is operating legally and all security and safety measures follow regulations. The Changbai Mountain Siberian Park will likely pay Liu's relatives about 100,000 yuan (12,091 US dollars) in compensation, sources with the park disclosed.

On Oct. 3, a worker at the Harbin Siberian Tiger Park was killed by a tiger and the victim's relatives received compensation of 150,000 yuan (about 18,000 US dollars) from the park.

So, as I said, good luck with the new tiger preserve.

Experts are not optimistic, according to Reuters:

But other experts said the plan was doomed unless the forests of northeast China were better protected from logging and human encroachment.

"Increased human activities, such as highway construction, have turned tiger habitats into isolated islands," Sun Haiyi, deputy chief of the Heilongjiang Provincial Institute Wildlife, told Xinhua, adding that such isolation led to dangerous in-breeding.

Nevertheless, I must confess I have a guilty fondness for the old-fashioned Chinese entrepreneur bureaucrat, the type of person who is not chosen for his qualifications, nor is he given training, financial assistance, or administrative support suited to his chosen enterprise.

He is given opportunity—the opportunity to leverage his charter for all the bank loans, legitimate operations, quasi-licit business activities, and personal profit he can squeeze out for himself, his buddies, and his clout down at City Hall—and some remarkable and remarkably bizarre businesses are the result.

Like a game park with a tiger surplus.

Or, of course, a sloppily managed tiger park where one of the staff gets eaten—and it takes Human Resources two weeks to realize the poor guy is missing.

I remember the jovial head of an exotic bird park—with dozens of rare species from flamingos to raptors to emus under his care—confiding to me that he had gotten the job because his previous employment, as manager of a county manhole factory, had vanished when a new real estate development had swallowed up his plant.

Nevertheless, the park was a success until anti-bird flu measures mandated the dispersion of his flocks.

I hope the manhole cover guy—like those Siberian tigers released into the wild—will continue to find unexpected opportunities, unexploited niches, and successes that cannot be predicted by science or logic in the new China.

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