SHANGHAI - A South China tiger, one of fewer than 100 in existence, took off from a Shanghai airport on Monday for a romantic mission to Africa that might help save the species.

The four-year-old male, known only by his breeding registry number "327", is to be paired with a young female of the same species in a South African reserve.


The idea is for the tigers to mix in a wild environment, breed and brush up on their hunting skills before being returned to their native habitat in China.

China's Suzhou South China Tiger Reserve volunteered the male tiger for the mating mission.

"South Africa offers land, expertise and prey animals, so it facilitates the tiger re-wilding in a much quicker and faster way," said Li Quan, founder of the charity Save China's Tigers.

She said China had initiated experiments but they did not go very far, although plans are afoot eventually to bring the tigers back to a reserve in China.

With only about 10 to 30 left in the wild and another 60 in captivity, the Chinese sub-species of the tiger clan is on the brink of extinction.

Two pairs have already been sent to the 33,000-hectare (81,540-acre) Laohu Valley Reserve in South Africa's Free State province since September 2003: a male named "Hope", his prospective partner "Cathay", and a younger pair, "Tiger Woods" and "Madonna". "Laohu" means "tiger" in Chinese.

Since Hope died of illness two years ago, reserve officials have been seeking a new mate for Cathay, who is now reaching sexual maturity, and number 327 seemed a perfect match.

"He is a very fertile stud tiger, one of the finer tigers here," said David Chen, director of the Suzhou reserve, which is home to 14 of the striped cats.

Feared as man-eaters but revered as majestic symbols of the wild, the South China tigers and other sub-species are being squeezed out in Asia by habitat loss as human populations swell.

The re-wilding program has had initial success as the tigers moved from hunting birds to bigger prey such as the blesbok, a white-faced African antelope that is similar in size to the deer species the tigers hunt in China.

Tiger 327 will make the three-day jet and helicopter journey, via Hong Kong and Johannesburg, in a cargo box with only water, although Zhang Lin of Save China's Tigers said tigers can go for five days without food in the wild.

Conservationists are already planning for the re-wilded group's return to China.

"We would be choosing from a few areas from the original habitat of the South China tigers to rebuild," said Lu Jun, associate research professor at the National Wildlife Research and Development Center.

Save China's Tigers said this was still in the planning stage but sites had already been identified in Zixi in Jiangxi province and in Liuyang in Hunan province, both in southeastern China.