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Li Quan, co-founder of the South China tiger project in South Africa.

Thousands of kilometres from his birthplace, the remains of a Chinese tiger are preserved in a freezer on a South African wildlife reserve, silent testimony to the risks of a controversial attempt to rescue one of the world's most endangered animals from the brink of extinction.

The tiger, known as 327, was killed by another male tiger in a sudden and unexpected eruption of violence. Placed in a pen next to a wilderness-raised tiger, the zoo-reared 327 made the mistake of pushing past the electric fence – and was slaughtered by its neighbour in a matter of minutes.

Despite the occasional death, the "rewilding" project under way here has created a surprising new chance of survival for the "King of the Hundred Beasts" – a famed Chinese cultural symbol for the past 4,000 years. After $25-million in investment and 10 years of effort to introduce captive Chinese tigers to the African wilderness, the project has cut their mortality rate in half.

The South China tiger was once seen as doomed. It is the world's most endangered tiger subspecies, with less than 30 believed to be still alive in the wild, along with a few dozen in captivity. At the beginning of the South Africa project, many conservation experts were hostile. One scoffed that it was "a circus sideshow dressed up as ecotourism."

But when five captive tigers were transplanted from Chinese zoos to a windswept South African farm called Laohu Valley ("Tiger Valley"), they and their offspring soon learned to hunt and catch wild prey, and their numbers began to soar. The latest breeding data shows a 27-per-cent mortality rate for tiger cubs – 11 have been born at Laohu Valley – compared to a 55-per-cent mortality rate in zoos.

The experiment began when Chinese fashion executive Li Quan, herself born in the Year of the Tiger in 1962, and her U.S. banker husband, Stuart Bray, decided to introduce the South China tigers into a 33,000-hectare expanse of rolling grasslands and bush in the semi-arid Karoo region of South Africa, gambling that the tigers would breed faster and adapt to the wild.

Critics were skeptical about their lack of scientific credentials. They warned of the hazards of transplanting the tigers and exposing them to African feline diseases.

The project wasn't easy. The costs have been huge, as Mr. Bray hired experts and assembled 17 former sheep farms to create the tiger reserve. At the beginning, the zoo-raised tigers were afraid of the swaying grass, and their paws were too tender to cope with the thorny soil.

But step by step, the tigers were weaned away from their kitchen-prepared meals. Beginning in small outdoor camps, they learned to catch rabbits and guinea fowl. Then they were given bigger prey: African antelopes such as springboks and blesboks. Within a few months – faster than many expected – they were avid stalkers and hunters, with all the skills needed to survive in the wild.

The goal is to push the South China tiger population through what some scientists call a "genetic bottleneck" that threatens its survival. All of today's South China tigers are descended from a tiny group of survivors of a relentless "anti-pest" campaign in Mao's China in the 1950s. Their small gene pool creates an inbreeding problem, and so the population must be expanded as swiftly as possible.

Laohu Valley now holds 14 tigers, compared with the original five. Maria Fabregas, a scientist researching the Laohu Valley tigers, says the lower mortality among the "rewilded" tigers is probably due to several factors: reduced human disruption, semi-free ranging conditions, less overcrowding, better hygiene and a more natural environment.

"We're really excited about it, particularly since there was a lot of criticism at the beginning," Mr. Bray said in an interview.

"There was a suggestion that we could be damaging their prospects for breeding. But when you put tigers in a natural environment, where they're fit and hunting and chasing game and they have stimulus and a varied diet, it does seem to help. Now that we have the data, we're winning over more and more people."

South Africa, with its conservation expertise, its thriving game industry and its long experience in moving endangered animals to new locations, was probably the only place in the world where the project could have succeeded, he said.

Mr. Bray and Ms. Li had hoped to send the tigers back to a nature reserve in China in time for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, but the project has been long delayed by problems in finding a site in a country with a huge population and a shortage of land. (Another awkward problem: The couple are getting divorced.)

But now Ms. Li says China has agreed to provide a 160-hectare "transitional" site for the tigers, plus about $4-million to finance the project, beginning next year. And three larger sites are being considered as a permanent home for the tigers, she says.

The lessons from Laohu Valley are not just the "rewilding" of the tigers, but also the revival of biodiversity on the farm, Mr. Bray said. "The tigers are a flagship, but we're changing the land use back to a more biodiverse wild condition. I hope it will take root in other projects. We're trying to address some of the most important and difficult problems that the world faces today."