By Ed Stoddard
JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - An extremely rare South China tiger has been killed by another on a South African reserve dedicated to saving the species from extinction, the conservation group behind the project said.
Save China's Tigers said on its web site the incident took place on Sept 17 when an adult male named "327" broke through a gate into another enclosure and attacked a second male.
In the ensuing five-minute struggle 327 was killed.
"An assessment of the circumstances reveals that 327 had charged right through the electrified gate separating the tigers to attack the other male," Save China's Tigers said.
"All gates on the reserve had been upgraded with added steel mesh protection, after a similar fence-breaking incident a couple of months earlier, but this was one of the four remaining gates that had not yet been upgraded," it said.
The project to save the big Asian cats on African soil aims to breed and "rewild" the critters so they can be reintroduced to their natural habitat and historic range in China.
Among other things this involves allowing them to hunt African antelope in large enclosures on the sprawling Laohu Valley Reserve in a remote part of the Free State province -- in effect, providing them with the chance to learn how to stalk and kill their own food.
The reserve is home to 11 tigers, three of them sired by 327.
Save China's Tigers said the incident highlighted the difference between "rewilded" cats and more domestic ones as 327 had not been put through the program because he was 4-1/2 years old when he was brought to the reserve.
"It is evident that he was no match for the second male who has gone through rewilding training for six years and acquired superb hunting skills, and who killed 327 easily despite being smaller than him," the group said.
Earlier this month, another "tiger-on-tiger" fatality occurred at a West Texas zoo after a female tiger, caught in a feline love triangle, killed her mate.
According to conservation group WWF, the South China tiger is believed to be ancestor of all tiger sub-species but has not been seen in the wild for over two decades. Save China's Tigers says there are only a few dozen of the sub-species left on the planet and only a handful are believed to be in the wild.
Globally there are only 3,200 tigers left in the wild, down from 100,000 a century ago, and they face a losing battle with poachers supplying traders in India and China with their parts for traditional medicine and purported aphrodisiacs.
(Reporting by Ed Stoddard, editing by Paul Casciato)