Tiger Woods snuggles closer to Madonna's soft fur coat, licking her behind the ear. She playfully nips his neck and rolls over as the African sun beats down and warms their bodies. Such is the life of the natural world's newest celebrity couple: Tiger Woods and Madonna are highly endangered Chinese tiger cubs. Li Quan, a former fashion executive and founder of Save China's Tigers (SCT), watches the cubs from less than a metre away. London-based Quan, 42, has flown the tigers to Lahou Valley Reserve, six hours' drive southwest of Johannesburg. The cubs are the latest inductees of Quan's radical conservation plan to save the Chinese tiger from extinction. Only 64 captive tigers remain and the last official sighting of one in the wild was more than two decades ago. The subspecies, also known as the South China tiger, numbered about 4,000 in 1959 when Mao Zedong declared it a pest. It was subsequently hunted mercilessly, with bounties paid for its hide. Since then, illegal poaching for tiger parts used in traditional medicine and loss of habitat as China's population exploded to 1.2 billion further decimated the subspecies. Quan, who once led a very different life as head of international licensing for Gucci, plans to relocate up to 10 cubs to South Africa for 'rewilding', or training, before returning them to yet-to-be-established wildlife reserves on the mainland. Unaware their future hangs in the balance, the cubs are coming to terms with their new home after a two-day journey on a Cathay Pacific-sponsored flight from China. As soon as the transportation crates are opened in the 200-square-metre quarantine camp at Lahou (meaning tiger in Putonghua) Valley Reserve, Madonna runs into the electric fence, receiving a mild shock. The cub is clearly disorientated in such a large and grassy expanse. Her former home was a small concrete cage at the Shanghai zoo. Madonna then starts to pace, typical zoo-induced behaviour. Meanwhile, Tiger Woods stays inside his crate, hiding from the media throng recording the pair's arrival. Only once the pack of photographers has left does the eight-month-old male make his way across the grass to the sun shelter. Tiger Woods does not let the long flight and subsequent jet lag ruin his appetite and is soon devouring raw lamb and beef. When he is tossed a dead rabbit he struts around the enclosure as if he had caught the animal himself. Over the next few days this pattern continues - Madonna baking in the scorching African sun, drinking little and eating nothing, while Tiger Woods rolls about playfully on his back under the shelter, eating both his and Madonna's food rations. Soon Madonna is dehydrated and needs antibiotics for an infection in her paw. A vet is called. Quan sets up a 24-hour vigil with reserve manager Peter Openshaw and tiger supervisor Shelly Plumb to ensure the cub is drinking. Quan assumes the role of surrogate mother to the ailing cub, who finally moves under the shelter. She places a water bowl under Madonna's jaw and makes a deep purr-like sound to calm both cubs. Tiger Woods has adopted the role of protector, growling at any humans who dare to approach. With the minor dramas over, Quan says she is happy the cubs are finally at the reserve, 33,000 hectares of defunct farmland she and her husband, Stuart Bray, purchased for US$4 million. 'We want to give the Chinese tigers a better place to breed instead of the zoo cages in China, which are like prison cells, where they have been for more than 10 generations,' says Quan. 'If they live in an area where they can run, play and be happy, they may breed better.' SCT's plan involves two main projects - the rewilding programme in South Africa and the establishment of an eco-tourism industry on the mainland through wildlife reserves. Quan says she was inspired to bring the eco-tourism concept to China after visiting several successful parks in Africa in the late 1990s. As Quan, who was born in the Year of the Tiger, held the SCT launch party at the Chinese embassy in London in November 1999, the media and established tiger conservation community pumped her with questions. 'Why is this woman from Beijing getting involved in the survival of the Chinese tiger?' and 'Why is the rewilding being conducted in South Africa, instead of China?' they asked. 'For some reason people are looking for my ulterior motive for helping the tigers, but I don't have one,' Quan says. 'I simply love all cats, particularly tigers, and want to help save this icon of Chinese culture.' Bray, who is also in South Africa to welcome the cubs, is visibly upset as he recalls the slanderous attacks on his wife, including accusations of using her retired military father's guanxi - his connections to the mainland government - and giving bribes, since SCT has agreed to give the government US$100,000 for each tiger it temporarily relocates to South Africa. 'All the accusations are ludicrous,' says Bray, an investment banker. 'In regard to the payment for the tigers, what isn't made public is that fees of this kind are common. For instance, Washington's National Zoo paid US$10 million in 2000 to 'rent' two giant pandas from the Chinese authorities for 10 years.' Quan had her first - and nearly her last - encounter with a tiger in 1998 when she literally escaped from the jaws of an Indo-Chinese tiger at the Wat Pa Luangta Bua Forest Monastery in Thailand, a sanctuary for tigers confiscated from illegal hunters. Quan was walking with the tiger and a Buddhist monk when the animal suddenly stood on its hind legs and put its front paws on her shoulders. She could feel its hot breath on her neck. Soon her leg was in the tiger's mouth. Perhaps it was naive to think if she treated the tiger like a domestic cat by rubbing it behind the ears it would back down, but it worked, and the tiger began rubbing against her leg as her pet cat did at home. Calmly recalling this incident, she believes it was a leopard's image on her backpack that had attracted the tiger's attention. With hindsight she realises she was incredibly lucky to escape without injury but does not look upon the encounter as a near-death experience, rather one that made her more determined to play a role in tiger conservation. Quan, Openshaw and I make our way by Jeep to the reserve's 75-hectare enclosure. This large camp houses 18-month-old tigers Cathay and Hope, who arrived in the country last year but were in a holding facility near Pretoria until September. Hope, a 100kg male, shows more than a passing interest in our Jeep's tyre and we drive out of his reach. Earlier, he bit through Open-shaw's front tyre, forcing him to race out of the enclosure before the tyre deflated. Quan says it may soon be necessary to enter the camp on elephants. Openshaw says Cathay and Hope are at a difficult stage in the rehabilitation process, where they are too wild to be handled but have no fear of humans. 'In September a handler was still able to get close to the tigers, but since they have been moved into this large enclosure they have become much more territorial and wild,' he says. 'There's no way a human can get close to these tigers again without being in great danger. Recently they killed an antelope and will soon be moved into a 6,000-hectare camp with access to more live prey.' Quan explains how she was able to set up her initial meeting with the mainland government, which resulted in the authorities approving her project. 'You might expect there was lots of red tape, but it was surprisingly easy. I called the State Forestry Administration [SFA] Wildlife Research Centre and got a meeting immediately. I said I wanted to help save the Siberian tiger [found in northeast China]. The official said, 'If you really want to help, please help the South China tigers. They are the most endangered.' It was not until then I realised what a desperate situation the South China tigers were in,' she says. Quan says the mainland officials supported her plan because they could tell her 'commitment to the tigers was genuine'. 'The Chinese government has placed a huge amount of trust in me and this rehabilitation project,' she says. 'Allowing us to take any tigers to South Africa from such a limited gene pool shows their belief in our project.' As a Chinese national who has lived abroad for nearly 20 years, Quan found herself respected both in the east and west and felt she could use this position to promote tiger conservation. She rallies support for tigers at every opportunity. On chance meetings through friends, she has garnered the support of such celebrities as Jackie Chan, Michelle Yeoh Choo Kheng and David Tang Wing-cheung. 'Initially I supported the government's Meihuashan Breeding and Rewilding Centre in Fujian province, but soon realised there were problems with the wildlife management and lack of land,' says Quan. She called on international tiger specialists to help the centre comply with global standards, but her efforts fell on deaf ears because a government-funded tiger census study in 2001-2002, which found no trace of them in the wild, had effectively deemed the subspecies extinct. The Meihuashan centre's breeding rates have improved with help from Huang Gong-qing, a veterinarian with the Suzhou zoo near Shanghai whom the mainland media calls the 'father of the South China tiger'. Under Huang's care, more than 75 tigers have been born at Suzhou zoo since 1988, including Cathay and Hope. However, Quan says the centre is unable to release the tigers into its reserve because the area is too small and doesn't have enough prey to support more than a few tigers. A senior official at the SFA agrees China lacks the expertise to manage the tiger rewilding programme. 'SCT's proposal makes a lot of sense - using South African expertise, land and prey to let the Chinese tigers regain the ability [to hunt] first, before being introduced to the Chinese wild,' he says. Early last year Zixi county in Jiangxi province and Liuyang city in the central province of Hunan were selected by SCT investigators as prime sites for the pilot tiger reserves. Officials from both provinces, anxious to help save the tiger while also boosting revenue through eco-tourism, have sent delegations to South Africa to gain firsthand knowledge of what is required to establish a reserve that preserves the wildlife while earning tourist dollars. The SFA is expected to announce early next year which province will gain funds to begin work on restocking prey and relocating people. The SFA official says, 'We are looking at relocating as few people as possible, preferably not more than 1,000, with jobs being created within the new reserve for these resettled people.' The first tigers will return in 2008, coinciding with the Beijing Olympics, and Quan is also pushing for the tiger to be adopted as the Games' mascot. However, Ron Tilson, who is one of the world's foremost tiger experts and was the senior technical adviser on the government's tiger census study, says he believes SCT's plan can succeed only if there is 'an effort of olympian proportions and participation and input from a broad spectrum of experts and decision-makers'. He says the prospect of an Olympics with the tiger as a mascot is appealing, but argues the selected reserve sites are too small to accommodate more than a few of the animals. In a paper delivered in Beijing in August, Tilson said he feared the vision of tiger conservation could become 'one of wire fences and throngs of tourists viewing a biological relic'. Quan disputes this scenario. 'We want to recreate reserves like those in South Africa, where the animals will have a much better quality of life than in zoos. At the same time it will provide economic benefits to the local communities and improve the habitat in the reserves.' Despite all the opposition, Quan is optimistic the SCT rehabilitation project will help restore the wild nature of the Chinese tiger by the third or fourth generation and these offspring will settle in China's newly established reserves. 'We must succeed for if we fail, part of China's spirit will die with the tiger.'