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Quan Li, Riding on the Tiger, Never Want to Get Off
    2008-05-09 15:35:05     CRIENGLISH.com

Quan Li, a 46-year-old Beijing native who has loved cats since her childhood, was once the head of Gucci's worldwide licensing business leading a fashionable and comfortable life. But she gave it all up to live in the bush of South Africa with the tigers.

After saying goodbye to a job that most women would die for, she says she is happier living with the tigers. Since her decision she has not stopped in her efforts to save the endangered South China Tiger. Our reporter Zhou Jing tells us the story behind the story.


Quan Li and the Tiger [photo source: savechinastigers.org]

 
After graduating from Peking University two decades ago, Quan Li moved to Belgium with her husband. But before leaving she worried about how she could bring her cat with her.

"At that time, it was very difficult to get out of the country and it was even more difficult to bring a cat out of the country. But I decided to bring the cat with me, and eventually I succeeded to take the cat on the airplane as my carry-on baggage."

That was her first experience with taking a cat abroad. She didn't know that years later she would do something quite similar. But now the cats she carries are much larger, the South China Tigers.

Living abroad for the past two decades has taught Quan Li a lot. She divorced, received her MBA at the Wharton Business School in the United States, moved from one job to another and from one country to another, and finally became the global brand certificate officer for Gucci.

Although so many things have changed, her passion for cats, which she regards as "the most beautiful creatures in nature," remains. 

"When I was young, my parents didn't allow me to keep cats at home, and I always tried to chase cats on the street or other people's cats. If I could put my hands on one, I would never let them go. It is one of the animals I love most. And also whenever I went to the zoo, the animals that can attract most attentions from me are the tiger, the leopard, and they are all big cats."

For a long time, Quan Li dreamed about spending all her time traveling around the world to see all kinds of cats.

She came close to realizing that dream when she quit her job in Italy in 1997 to join her then boy friend and now husband Stuart Bray, an international banker based in London.

She met Bray when they were both studying at the Wharton Business School. They fell in love soon after graduation. Then they lived separately to pursue their separate careers.

By the time she moved to London, Quan Li was already heading Gucci's worldwide licensing business. But gradually, she lost interest and the agony of separation also became increasingly intolerable. At that time, Bray was also thinking of an early retirement.

During that period, the couple traveled to places including South Africa and Zambia. In the summer of 1998 in Namibia, Quan Li unexpectedly ran across a cheetah in the desert. 

"I was told that it would be impossible to see the cheetahs in the desert. But on the first day, when I had a drive, we saw a cheetah approaching us. It was unbelievable. In the desert, the cheetah, instead of running away from human beings, she just slowly approached us and came in front of my jeep, stopped there and watched us. I could feel that she was begging us for something."

She wanted to get out of the jeep and help the poor cheetah, but the others stopped her, saying it was too dangerous. 

"And later on, when we didn't do anything about her, she just walked away, kept on looking back. I could still see the impression in her big eyes that she was begging us."

Afterwards, Quan Li found out that it was a pet cheetah newly returned to the wild soon after the country began enforcing a prohibition on private wildlife breeding. Actually the keeper released two cheetahs; before Quan Li saw the cheetah, the other had already died.

That sad memory kept haunting her and she decided to devote herself to wildlife conservation in China. In 2000, she convinced Bray to help fund the Save China's Tigers Foundation in London.

The project aims to take zoo-born South China tigers from China and release them into the wild in South Africa, where they can learn to hunt for themselves again. If they manage to do so, they will teach their descendants who will then be able to live independently in the wilderness.

However, this was not easy and nobody had ever tried it before. After gaining approval from China's Forestry Administration, they first brought a pair of South Chinese Tigers, Cathay and Hope, to South Africa in 2003. The tigers quickly got used to the new environment, so another pair of young tigers were brought. But two years later, while things seemed to be going well, the first male tiger, Hope, died of an illness.

This began a wave of criticism against Quan Li, but she insisted that her way of saving South China Tiger was correct and brought another adult male tiger from China.

Good news finally came on Nov. 25th, 2007. Cathay gave birth to a baby tiger. It was one of the most exciting and anxious moments Quan Li has ever experienced. 

"It's eleven thirty at night. We knew she's going to give birth, so we all waited. I was excited and felt very happy when I heard the cry of the cub after he kept quiet for half an hour. We were just worried that there was something wrong with him, just when we were saying 'God, the cub is not crying', he cried! Then we checked him all over, and he was improved to be very healthy."

After looking through the names sent in by people from all over the world, the cub got his name, Hulooo, which attracted a lot of attention to the project.

Four months later, Cathay gave birth again to two cubs. And Madonna, the other female South China Tiger also gave birth this April.

As of now, 5 baby tigers have been born. Two of them died of illnesses but the rest are healthy and living in South Africa. Millions of dollars have been spent by Quan Li and her husband on breeding the precious animals.

But the successive births of the cubs gave Quan Li more confidence about what she's trying to do, saying that she will never quit. 

"I'm riding the tiger, and I can't get off. And I also say 'I'm riding the tiger, I don't want to get off anyway.'"

Hulooo, the first of Cathay's cubs is now undergoing training to return to the wild with his mother, and Quan Li says the little creature has done very well and may leave his human caregivers, and return to the wilderness in the near future.

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