A senior supervisor at Laohu Valley Reserve near Philippolis in the Free State, South Africa, was killed by a tiger over the weekend. The Laohu Valley Reserve is a roughly 350km² private reserve that was established in 2002 as a breeding centre for the South China tiger. The reserve is not open to the public, as the tigers are part of a project that aims to rewild the animals for eventual return to protected reserves in China.
According to the reserve it was necessary to put down the the male tiger, known as ‘Beta’, during the incident.
A statement on the reserve’s website said: “Vivienne McKenzie had dedicated the last decade of her life to the care and protection of endangered South China tigers. At this time, the exact circumstances of the incident, which occurred during routine management activities are not clear, but local authorities and the project team, are conducting a thorough investigation.
“Vivienne was born in Zimbabwe and grew up in the KwaZulu-Natal midlands. She then moved to Philippolis with her family. She once described her position at Laohu working with tigers as “a dream come true”.
“Our condolences go out to her family and friends for this tragic loss,” said the reserve’s general manager, Heinrich Funck. “Her fellow workers and I are in shock and mourning for the woman who approached her work with a passion, diligence, humour and joy. Everyone at the reserve and the Save China’s Tigers charity are devastated by this, it is hard to imagine our operations without her and we will never, ever forget her vitality and personality and the important role she has played in the conservation of these endangered tigers.”
A statement by L. Quan, the Beijing-born former fashion executive, who established the Chinese Tiger Rewilding & Re-introduction project, says: “Vivienne came to me as a complete surprise while I was looking for a tiger supervisor for the South China Tiger rewilding project in South Africa in 2008. She had no former training in biology or zoology but to me, that was actually an advantage, as what we were doing was completely unprecedented and required open-mindedness. She was keen to learn everything.
“The culprit was a tiger named Beta. Vivienne and I witnessed the births of Alpha and Beta by the tiger mother Cathay, who I brought from China to South Africa in 2003. I don’t have any details of what happened but it appeared that Beta has now been put down. I mourn the deaths of both Vivienne and Beta.
“Although I no longer have had any involvement with the South African part of the South China Tiger project since 2012, I have continued to follow the progress of the tiger reintroduction project. We understand that China has been ready since last year with two state of the art facilities to receive the tigers back from South Africa and has been trying to get the tigers to return back to China since then. It will be wonderful to see these South China tigers, long absent from home, set their powerful feet back on China’s soil again soon. It will be a great day of celebration.”
The breeding centre is part of the Save China’s Tigers charity, which according to their website, aims to bring the South China tiger back from the edge of extinction by taking them out of zoos, breeding them, letting them regain their hunting abilities and reintroducing them back into the wild in China. According to the website, rewilding was necessary in the case of the South China tiger because there were no known wild South China tigers when the project began – Chinese zoos were the only source of South China tigers and two cubs were taken from zoos to start the breeding centre in South Africa. Those South China tigers that have successfully regained hunting skills and are able to survive independently in the wild in South Africa will be reintroduced back to China to protected reserve(s), based on the model and principles of successful African reserves.
According to the Laohu Valley Reserve website, the project takes place in South Africa instead of China due to land costs, an abundance of wild prey animal and because of the large resource of highly skilled wildlife managers and conservationists available.