Hunting performance of captive-born South China tigers (Panthera tigris amoyensis) on free-ranging prey and implications for their reintroduction

13 Oct 2015

The South China tiger (Panthera tigrisamoyensis), although listed by the IUCNas critically endangered, is probably extinct in the wild. This leaves captive-born animals as the only stock available for reintroductions. Because reintroduced tigers will not survive in the wild unless they hunt proficiently, we aimed to determine whether captive-born tigers were able to hunt free-ranging prey and to evaluate their hunting performance as a criterion for reintroduction. The effect of other variables on subsequent hunting success, such as the availability of stalking cover and the upbringing history of tigers while they were cubs were also explored, given their relevance in reintroduction programs. Twelve tigers over two years of agewere fittedwith GPS collars and placed individually in 100 ha enclosures to determine their kill rate of blesbuck (Damaliscus pygargus), as a measure of their hunting performance. All tigers but one successfully hunted blesbuck, although kill rate varied substantially amongst individuals, ranging from one blesbuck every 3.14 days to no blesbuck. Tigers also killed other species indicating plasticity in their hunting behavior, and showed higher kill rates in the enclosure where cover was more abundant, confirming the importance of stalking cover in hunting success for this species. Results showed that the presence of the mother during cub development was not necessary for cubs to hunt later in life, although it had a positive effect on kill rate. Our study represents the first empirical evidence that captive-born tigers can successfully hunt free-ranging prey adequately to meet their energetic demands, validating the use of captive animals to recover wild populations, should other reintroduction criteria be met. Moreover, that tigers adapted to the African veld ecoregion suggests they should be able to adapt back to southern China where opportunities for stalking and ambush are more numerous.