A critically endangered South China tiger (Panthera tigris amoyensis) has killed another of its kind, sad news for efforts to save this rarest tiger subspecies from extinction.

The death took place at the Laohu Valley Reserve in South Africa, where the organization Save China's Tigers maintains a conservation project to breed South China tigers and teach them to hunt and survive in the wild, a process known as "rewilding." The eventual goal is to release some of these tigers back into a reserve in China.

The tigers at the South African reserve are kept apart, since male tigers require individual territories and will not tolerate the presence of other males. But on September 17, a tiger known only as "327" broke through an electrified gate and entered another enclosure. There, he fought with and was killed by a younger male with six years of rewilding experience.

This is the second gate-crashing event at the reserve in the past few months. Save China's Tigers says that most of the gates had been upgraded following the first break-out, but this gate was one of four that had not yet been enhanced.

The slain 327 had been born in captivity China's Suzhou Zoo, where he was hand-raised by humans. He was transferred to South Africa in April 2007 as part of a collaborative breeding program between Save China's Tigers and the Chinese government. He was never rewilded because he was already more than four years old when he arrived at the reserve.

"With so few South China tigers left, the loss of just one breeding male is profound," Save China's Tigers founding director Li Quan said in a prepared statement. "I am however glad that he lived half of his life like a wild tiger, instead of perishing in a zoo cage. He died a heroic death, tiger-style."

327 had sired three of the eight tigers birthed in South Africa since the program began. Another female carrying his progeny is due to give birth in late October.

Quan says the organization will use this death as a learning experience: "We are now dealing with rewilded and highly intelligent big cats that can hunt and kill efficiently. We will need to improve our safety standards and protocols accordingly. As one scientist noted, in a perverse way this accident shows that the rewilding project has proven to be a success."

The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources lists the South China tiger as "critically endangered, possibly extinct in the wild" following decades of state-sponsored hunting. The Communist government classified them as pests and "enemies of the people" in 1959 and the tigers were indiscriminately slain until they were finally protected in 1977, by which time they had all but disappeared. Scientists think that if the subspecies still exists in the wild, the population may be fewer than 20 animals. Only a few dozen remain in captivity.

Photo: Slain South China tiger 327, photographed at by a Save China's Tigers volunteer in South Africa in September, 2007. Via Wikipedia