The South China Tiger Is Functionally Extinct. This Banker Has 19 of Them
Stuart Bray brawls with everyone—including his wife—to save the South China tiger from extinction.
On the highway south of Bloemfontein, South Africa, Stuart Bray sits in the back seat of a safari truck, sweating in jeans and boots in the 100-degree heat of a December afternoon. Bray and his driver have just picked up two Chinese government officials from the airport, and now they’re wedged in next to him, their expressions hidden by sunglasses. As they drive, the only landmarks are dusty sheep farms and the occasional ostrich.
Bray rides cheerfully until, an hour into the drive, his cell phone buzzes. A tabloid reporter is calling from London, the city where Bray lives most of the year and where he’s getting a high-profile divorce. His wife has made another set of accusations in the multimillion-pound case. “No, it’s not true that I don’t like animals,” Bray tells the reporter, irritated. “No, it’s not true that I hate my wife’s cats.” It’s impossible to tell if the Chinese are listening.
The phone signal dies as the truck enters a wind-blasted, rocky expanse of scrubland called the Karoo. After an awkward silence, Bray turns his companions’ attention to the creatures they’ve come to see. “They could kill you just playing,” he says. “If one wanted to hurt you, you would really be in trouble.”
The truck approaches a 10-foot-high electric fence that stretches for miles into the distance, like something out of Jurassic Park. A sign on a gate, marked Laohu Valley Reserve, warns in Afrikaans that trespassers will be prosecuted. After stopping at a lodge, the vehicle continues down a dirt track that leads to more electrified fences. These divide slopes of dried grass into an uneven grid, each roughly the size of a football field. After a few more minutes, the truck stops next to the only building in sight, a hut with cage doors, and Bray and the Chinese get out.
Bray takes a breath. Even though he’s been to this spot on dozens of occasions, he feels the same pricks of excitement every time he sees the figure in the grass: a 7-foot South China tiger, crisp black brush strokes on a coat of deep rust fringed with white, head held low, yellow eyes tracking the men through the fence. Her name is Madonna. She yawns, baring canines the size of small railroad spikes, and rolls onto her back with her paws in the air.
One of the Chinese officials, Lu Jun, squats down to take photos. The other, Zhang Dehui, points at Madonna’s face. “Three stripes and one vertical,” he says. “This is a Chinese character. Pronounced ‘wong.’ It means king.” He sketches the symbol on a piece of paper.
Bray, 54, who is short and trim with neat, graying hair, looks skeptical. “Sometimes you can kinda see it,” he says. Bray is eager to keep the Chinese happy. He runs the organization that owns the Laohu reserve, and Madonna belongs to one of the most critically endangered species on earth, one that the World Wildlife Fund considers “functionally extinct.” None are believed to remain in the wild; perhaps 100 exist in captivity. Bray has 19 of them on his 74,000 acres. A 20th died the night before, after an encounter with a blesbok. He wants to re-wild the tigers, help them learn how to hunt and breed, and return them to the forests of southeastern China. Lu and Zhang have flown in from the State Forestry Administration in Beijing to talk about bringing Bray’s tigers home.
Madonna watches the group with mild curiosity. Determining that no one is going to give her any food, she turns her head regally to watch the sun sink over the rocky cliffs and dried-up riverbeds of Laohu Valley.
Bray takes Lu and Zhang to the camp’s main lodge, where rangers set out a simple dinner after nightfall. It’s too hot to close the doors, so insects fly in from the darkness and swarm the lights as the men discuss the tigers’ fate. Probably more than any other person on the planet, Bray is responsible for whether the South China tiger survives or becomes extinct, a notion he finds as surprising as anyone else. Born and raised in America, he lives in London and maintains Belgian citizenship. A former executive at Deutsche Bank, his natural habitat is Wall Street or the Square Mile of London, where he spent a career in structured finance. Bray is happier talking about Black-Scholes options pricing than he is trekking through the bush, where flying bugs make him jump.
A hot wind rattles the windows of the lodge as Zhang, the director of his agency’s wildlife conservation division, begins a series of toasts, as is Chinese custom, marked with shots of local liquor. In halting but clear English, he thanks Bray for his efforts at restoring a species on the brink. The next step, Zhang says, will be the hardest. Bray’s charity has spent 10 years teaching zoo tigers how to hunt. If these potential man-eaters are to be sent to China, the government will need to relocate some of its citizens. In a nation of 1.4 billion, even the most remote nature preserves have some human settlements.
Bray says he wants 300 wild tigers in a sprawling habitat.
“We have to move the people,” Zhang tells him. “China is not like South Africa. You are very ambitious.”
Bray stares at him. “I have bet my whole life on this,” he says.
In 1998, Bray was on vacation in Zambia with his girlfriend, Li Quan, when their guides on a walking safari led them straight into a pack of lions. Terrified and worried that Li might bolt, Bray grabbed her by the shirt collar. They backed out. Afterward, he couldn’t stop laughing because of the adrenaline.
Li, a slender woman with expressive eyes, hadn’t been scared. She’d always been fascinated by big cats and filmed the whole scene on her video camera. Born in China, she’s one year younger than Bray. They met as graduate students at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in the late 1980s. Li later gave up a licensing job at Gucci to move to London and be with Bray, then a partner at Bankers Trust. She needed something to occupy her while he was out creating tax-focused securitization deals, and the safari episode, she’d later say, gave her an idea. What if she could bring African-style ecotourism to China, creating a habitat for endangered tigers and a source of revenue to help them thrive?
Bray was skeptical but vaguely supportive of conservation, and gave Li $150,000 to start a charity, Save China’s Tigers. Wary of being asked to write more checks, he told her, “This is a black hole that will consume infinite money and is doomed to fail.”
Li spoke to someone she knew in the State Forestry Administration and found him surprisingly receptive to the idea of reintroducing the big cats to the country. The earliest known tigers lived in China more than 2 million years ago, and Neolithic people there carved figures of them into rocks to ward off ghosts, disasters, and disease. While the South China tiger once roamed a territory 1,200 miles wide, the species was all but eradicated by hunters during the “anti-pest” campaigns of Mao’s Great Leap Forward, and its forest habitat was largely destroyed. There is a conservation movement in modern China, albeit a nascent one. The SFA told Li that even if she were able to obtain and re-wild a sufficient number of tigers, it would be a while before there was anywhere suitable to put them.
That was a problem for the future. More pressing was that Li and Bray had no conservation experience, and the big wildlife protection groups didn’t want to work with them. The pair were seen as rich dilettantes who might divert scarce funds from groups with more realistic projects. To boost credibility, Li approached John and Dave Varty, the South African big-cat experts and filmmakers, who were famous for operating a reserve where tourists pay to get close to tigers from inside cages mounted on trucks. Li asked the Vartys to work with Save China’s Tigers, to help her find good land in South Africa and build a staff. Bray started to come around to Li’s project. “I was impressed by Li’s perseverance in the face of opposition from just about everyone,” he says. “It began to feel like David and Goliath, and I had a lot of sympathy with David.”
Bray had his own battles. In 1999, Deutsche Bank took over Bankers Trust, and he started to war over tax strategy with a rising executive named Anshu Jain. Bray was fired in 2001; Jain went on to become co-chief executive officer. Bray tried to move his team to another company but couldn’t pull it off; he decided he was finished with banking. “I was so sick of the politics and the infighting,” he says. “I just didn’t want to do that anymore.” After two decades, he’d saved about $25 million. Li remembers him being miserable. “He was lost and resentful,” she says.
They got married in a small ceremony at a town hall near their East London home a month later, in August 2001. Li invited a handful of friends. No one came for Bray. “I was the only one who stood by him,” Li says.
Without a day job, Bray began to think more about the tiger idea he’d once thought was doomed. The tiger, which kills by biting through the neck of its prey, remains a potent symbol of intelligence, power, virility, and elegance in China, and it’s one of the 12 signs of the Chinese zodiac. Bray traveled to China with Dave Varty, where they researched the potential market for tiger tourism. Bray became convinced that saving the species could be not just virtuous but also lucrative. “Help nature, help communities, and make a profit,” Bray says. “What’s not to like?”
He bought an area about four times the size of Manhattan in the Free State province of South Africa and agreed to lease it to the Varty brothers, who would run the reserve. Li talked the Chinese government into sending them South China tiger cubs that had been bred in zoos. In 2002, Bray and Li were all ready to fly to Beijing to finalize the plan. At the last moment, according to Bray, the Vartys tried to change the deal. Bray expelled them from the project and set up his own charitable trust to take the brothers’ place in their arrangement. The parties sued and countersued. John Varty, reached by phone in December, didn’t want to discuss the dispute. “I’ve dealt with a lot of people in my life, a lot of rich people as well,” Varty said. “Two of the most distrustful and evil people I have ever met in my life are Quan and Bray.” Then he hung up. (Varty was mauled and almost killed by one of his tigers in 2012.)
Li and Bray were on their own, with the first cubs due to arrive within a year. “We had very little time,” Bray says. Li started trying to find scientists, rangers, and vets. They needed fences, enclosures, special cages for transport, live prey, and a plan for turning caged tigers into wild hunters, which many experts thought was impossible.
While Li was busy at the reserve, Bray turned to the two things he did best: litigation and securitization. As well as fighting the Vartys in court, Bray sued Deutsche Bank over stock options he wanted to access. Because they hadn’t yet vested, he sought to sell options on the options. This made perfect sense in his mind, but Deutsche Bank wouldn’t give him a clear answer as to whether such a transaction was allowed. Bray also began to ponder other ways to raise money for a project that was devouring capital. “I started to think about the tools that were available to me,” he says. Characteristically, he came up with the most complicated solution imaginable.
Bray planned to raise as much as $2 billion in this way: He’d create and then sell asset-backed securities, use the money to buy forestry assets in China, and then, with income from selling wood, repay investors in the original securities. Anything left over would go to the tigers, and a finance firm—which Bray set up—would get fees for arranging the deal.
“My friends thought I was crazy,” Bray says. “In particular, some of the people I was trying to persuade to work with me thought it was crazy.” Bray imagined something like a philanthropic hedge fund. If successful, it would make enough profit to pay for a tiger habitat in China and also give Bray and his staff the kind of compensation City of London financiers were accustomed to—as much as £10 million ($14.5 million) a year for Bray personally. That would make him one of the best-paid conservationists in history. Bray pitched Credit Suisse, Goldman Sachs, and ABN Amro, but none would agree to back the scheme.
In September 2003 handlers at the Shanghai Zoo put a pair of South China tiger cubs named Cathay and Hope into cages and flew them to Hong Kong. There, Li held a news conference with former Bond girl Michelle Yeoh, whom she’d enlisted as a charity patron through a fashion-industry friend. After another plane ride, the tigers arrived in South Africa, where Li introduced the cubs to more journalists at the National Zoological Gardens in Pretoria. “We have to take this drastic measure to save them from likely extinction,” she told reporters and photographers. Cathay and Hope spent several weeks in quarantine at the facility, got treated for ringworm, and received a dental checkup before being delivered to Laohu.
A book released by Li years later describes the moment the cubs first set foot on semiwild African soil. “Li’s heartbeat quickened. Yes! It could work, it was already working,” reads the introduction. “Her delicate Chinese fists clenched with joy. Her critics were wrong. They were dull, unimaginative people who dared not dream.” The reality was less inspiring. When Cathay and Hope arrived, they refused to get off the concrete foundation at the gate. They’d never walked on grass before. Laohu staff had to use a ball the cubs played with to coax them into their enclosure.
When it came to feeding, there was no guidebook for re-wilding a tiger. Hardly anyone had attempted it before. “This was all speculation until you actually try it,” Bray says. The first time they put a live chicken in the enclosure, the cubs chased it around for a while until the bird got tired. “Once the chicken turned around and stared at them, they just stopped.” Being faced down by poultry was a humiliating start to life in the wild for two young tigers. The team mixed chicken meat into zoo food to get the cats used to the taste, then introduced plucked carcasses, then dead birds with feathers on. Eventually, Cathay and Hope overcame their first live chicken.
Two more cubs arrived from China in late 2004. Madonna, who came then, got dehydrated after spending all day in the African sun. “There was shade available, but she was too naive to know how to use it,” Bray says. Li stayed up all night offering water to the shaking, vomiting tiger.
A 4-year-old male called 327 arrived in 2007. He was used to life in zoos and never got comfortable outside. “You could see by the way he walked,” Bray says. Finally, 327 found his mojo by mating with one of the females; then, pumped up with macho pride, he picked a fight with another male and lost. His skeleton is mounted in a glass case in the reserve lodge.
Bray’s legal problems got worse. The Varty litigation was costing $1 million a year in lawyers’ fees. A South African animal protection group sued one of Laohu Valley’s managers, saying it was cruel to put living creatures in an enclosure for tigers to hunt. South African judges rejected the lawsuit in 2008, but by then Bray and Li were almost out of money. The tigers were breeding, and the project needed more fences for new enclosures to separate them, as well as more antelope for hunting practice. The worldwide financial crisis that year officially ended any interest from banks in Bray’s forestry-finance idea.
Just when the project needed it most, there was an unexpected windfall. While Bray was fighting with Deutsche Bank over his options, the bank put out a news release. Bray claimed that it implied his old division was caught up in a U.S. tax probe, which wasn’t the case, and he sued for libel. The suit, along with the stock dispute, was settled out of court. In 2009 he arranged for Deutsche Bank to pay £20 million to a Save China’s Tigers charitable trust as a tax-free donation. The same year, Bray gave up his American citizenship and became a Belgian national, saying he didn’t want the organization to face onerous U.S. taxes.
Amid the lawsuits, the money troubles, and the difficulty of what they were attempting, Li and Bray’s relationship began to rupture. Li saw herself as the charity’s figurehead, but her style irritated Bray. She created Twitter and Facebook accounts for the tigers. The book she released in 2010, based on her diaries, described tigers with smiles on their faces, and love triangles, jealousies, and heartbreaks when they mated. Bray thought all this undermined the project’s credibility.
They went to counseling, but the arguments got worse. Li said Bray became emotionally abusive; Bray said Li threatened to tell the Chinese government there was something shady about the Deutsche Bank settlement.
Bray removed Li from the charity in 2012. She filed for divorce in London 10 days later. They’ve barely spoken since. Li signs off e-mails to Bray with “wrath of the tigress whose baby has been taken away.”
Li climbed into the witness box of a wood-paneled London courtroom on Dec. 17, 2013, to testify in the divorce. She was surrounded by at least a dozen red folders full of evidence, and behind her the court walls were lined with law books, some more than a century old. Her husband sat a few feet away in the front row. Wearing a silver tiger belt buckle, Li sobbed as she spoke. When they founded the charity in 2000, Bray thought of the tigers as her “little hobby,” she said. She’d been forced out after devoting 13 years of her life to an animal she loved. “I intensely hope I can continue my work.”
The court had to resolve an important financial issue before it could grant a divorce. Li argued that a trust holding the Deutsche Bank money was for the couple’s benefit, as well as for the tigers—a so-called marital asset to which she was entitled. Bray argued that the funds were exclusively for the charity.
It quickly became clear how far Li was willing to go to win her case. She described living well on the charity’s funds. “I bought furniture, we had expensive dinners, we had expensive wines,” Li said. There were rented sports cars and a wall mural. The couple’s operating expenses, which would have seemed modest at Deutsche Bank or Gucci, looked shocking when charged to a registered charity. The veteran judge, Sir Paul Coleridge, was incredulous. “This is a charity with people being asked to contribute money to it,” he said. “It was incredibly dishonest.”
“I was careful to ensure that outside money went to the tiger project,” Li replied.
Li also alleged that Bray used the charity to shield his wealth from taxes. “What lies behind all this is Mr. Bray and Mr. Bray’s control,” Li’s lawyer, Richard Todd, told the judge. The tiger project, he said, was going nowhere.
British newspapers found the story of the millionaire banker, his glamorous wife, and their endangered predators irresistible. “CLAWS OUT IN £50M SPLIT OF TIGER COUPLE,” read one headline in the Daily Mail. “Tremendous damage has been done to the charity by the reporting of the hearings here,” Bray complained to the judge.
He paced outside the courtroom during breaks. Asked by reporters for a way to contact him, he said he’d have to take legal advice before giving out his e-mail address.
Bray’s day in court came in June 2014. He struggled to keep his cool during hours of cross-examination. “You are reading far too much into it,” he shouted during one exchange, his black-rimmed glasses pushed up onto his head. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” He rubbed his face with his hands. “Let me take a moment.”
“These are perfectly legitimate questions,” Coleridge said, looking down at Bray from the judge’s bench. “We have to explore these things.”
Bray agreed his use of overseas trusts and advisory firms was confusing. There are reasonable explanations for the complexity, he argued, describing how he’d tried to use his finance skills to achieve the charity’s goals. When an animal is “facing imminent extinction, then you swing for the fences,” he said. “You make big bets, because if the bets pay off, you have the money to save them.”
Judge Coleridge took until October 2014 to deliver a verdict. He ruled in Bray’s favor, saying he’d seen nothing improper about the charity or the couple’s actions, even those he’d initially seen as dishonest. The trust holding the Deutsche Bank money “was always, and is, only for the Chinese tigers.” Whereas Bray’s testimony was clear and consistent, Li “has become blinded by her desire for revenge,” Coleridge said.
Li has since started her own charity, China Tiger Revival. In November 2015 she got permission from a panel of judges to appeal Coleridge’s ruling. If she doesn’t win the case, she says, she’ll be left with nothing. Even the East London home she still shares with Bray is owned by Save China’s Tigers. Li, her lawyers said in a statement, “wants the courts to understand what is really going on in the financial superstructure built up around these tigers by her husband.”
On the second day of the SFA’s visit to the reserve, Zhang and Lu rise early to watch the tigers being fed. Although they mostly subsist on freshly shot game, they’re learning to hunt. One of the males once killed an 1,800-pound eland and spent a week chewing on it. The tigers have also eaten aardvarks, baboons, and porcupines, and the mothers are passing these skills on to their cubs.
In Madonna’s area, one of the rangers tosses a dead antelope over the fence. The tiger bounds up, snatches the animal by the neck, and carries it a few yards. She licks the fur off with her abrasive tongue, then bites into the rump. Within a few minutes, the bottom half of the antelope is a bloody mess. There’s a crackling noise like burning twigs as Madonna bites through a leg bone. “That sound still gives me the shivers,” says one of Bray’s employees, Brad Nilson.
Bray poses for photos next to the feeding tiger. “I should make that my Tinder profile picture,” he says later, back at the lodge.
His staff sets up a projector screen in the lounge so he can give a presentation to his Chinese guests, surrounded by tiger photos and big-cat-themed ornaments. Loss of biodiversity is a threat to all life on earth, Bray begins, and it’s happening faster than at any point in human history. “We have to reverse this problem,” he says, “not for me because I love tigers, but because I want the planet to remain habitable.”
Bray describes a site in southwest China, the Qichong National Nature Reserve, as an ideal home for the tigers. It’s primal forest, surrounded on three sides by mountains and a river, remote and sparsely populated, but with good enough transport links to support ecotourism, he says. He’s signed a provisional agreement with local officials and is negotiating with the provincial government.
Zhang listens carefully before responding. More than a decade has passed since Chinese zoos first loaned Bray and Li their tiger cubs, Zhang says, and there’s pressure to bring them home. The question is how. One option is to re-create Laohu in China so the animals can acclimate to a forested environment and then be released later—an interim location, in other words, at a modest size.
Bray frowns and cracks his knuckles. The suggestion is far short of his vision of tigers returning to a pristine wilderness. “At great personal cost, I’ve lived up to my commitments,” he says. “I expect China to do the same. Whether this was a silly folly or a successful project depends on what we end up with in China.” His voice is getting louder. “I have to have a good ending for this.”
Zhang replies calmly, “The Western way—frankly speaking, we don’t think it will work in China.”
Even if Bray could delay the tigers’ return indefinitely, he’s facing a bigger problem: At some point, the charity will run out of money. Bray says it has cash of about £5 million, and the revenue possibilities at Laohu are limited. One is game ranching—raising animals such as springbok and eland and selling them on South Africa’s live game markets. A second is charging hunters to shoot such animals at Laohu. That might be controversial, given that hunting is what got the South China tiger into trouble in the first place, but Bray can live with it. “I wouldn’t consider it unjust for me to make some money,” he says. “I think the likelihood of me making the money back I put in is close to zero.”
If the Chinese government won’t pay for a reserve, the best remaining outcome might be to find a billionaire patron. Zhang and Lu keep talking about a potential backer named Su Zhigang, the chairman of Guangdong Chimelong Group, who’s built a theme park empire in China. His company’s attractions, including a circus, a drive-through safari, and the country’s largest theme park, Chimelong Paradise, get millions of visitors every year. Recently he opened a $5 billion island water park near Macau, a kind of Asian SeaWorld. Su is apparently interested in taking Bray’s tigers.
Bray appears intrigued but says he needs to be convinced that Su would be a suitable partner. He’s heard the name before but hasn’t been able to contact the entrepreneur, and Zhang and Lu seem unwilling to arrange a meeting. But Bray understands that Su has two things he lacks: access to vast resources and clout in China. (Su didn’t respond to several requests for comment.)
The argument over the tigers’ fate, and who will pay for it, continues into the evening, as Bray and Zhang walk off to sit in near-darkness at an outdoor table. Above the sound of crickets and springbok steak sizzling on the barbecue, Bray can be heard shouting, “This is my legacy.”
Bray’s problems seem a long way off during a game-spotting drive on the final day of the officials’ visit. The tigers are what conservationists call an umbrella species: The care lavished on them also benefits other creatures in the ecosystem. Raising exotic Asian tigers in Africa has turned a cluster of former sheep farms into a stunning habitat, albeit one surrounded by fences and managed by people. There are two wild cheetahs on the reserve, and a grassy plain is strewed with bleached bones from their kills. Springbok bounce alongside the truck, flouting gravity.
Bray bounces in his seat as one of the reserve managers, Heinrich Funck, steers along a rocky track. “I got involved gradually,” Bray says, reflecting. “Suddenly I had 30,000 hectares.”
Funck slows so his passengers can observe a lone oryx standing under the shade of a tree. “I would say it took over your life,” he says.
Bray is silent for a moment. “Yes,” he says. “It has.”
—With Feifei Shen