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Tigers tale is one of hope

Can zoo-bred tigers be retrained to recover their killer instincts? That's the hope of two conservationists who hope to reintroduce the species into the wild during Living With Tigers, a Discovery Channel documentary.

During three years of the controversial project, we meet tigers Ron and Julie, selected to be the Adam and Eve of their species. South African naturalist and filmmaker John Varty brought the animals from a Canadian zoo to pursue an untested theory: That creatures can be taught to revert to their animal nature and thus be returned to self-sufficiency. Varty's venture receives funding from Discovery Channel Quest, the channel's scientific initiative.

There is certainly urgency behind this initiative: Environmentalists estimate the big cats will reach extinction this decade, victims of a failure to compete for their natural Asian habitat against one-fifth of the world's population.

Varty's remedy is to place tigers on another continent entirely. Ron and Julia are taught to live and hunt in a vast African plain that looks nothing like the jungles where indigenous tigers have historically roamed.

Initially, the trainees catch on to the whole hunting and capturing thing, but then fail to recognize the subject of their quest as food.

There is little discussion of the wisdom of this venture. After all, kind hearts have tried this sort of liberation before with Keiko, the animal star of Free Willy. That animal was liberated but to date, the whale has not been able to break its attachment to humans. Chaos theory espouses that the introduction of a new species would cause unintended consequences.

But as you watch the tigers grow, one understands the passion of Varty and trainer Dave Salmoni to see them survive. There is some phenomenal footage of the bond between man and beast, such as a segment where Salmoni approaches Ron, who has unwisely chosen a porcupine for his first kill. As the tiger groans and feasts, Salmoni removes the quills from the big cat's body. Another scene gives doubt to the enterprise, as the two tigers cower for a full week after the introduction of ostriches into their 100,000-acre preserve, Tigermoon.

A follow-up is in order, to see if the tigers, released at program's end, can survive on their own.

Living With Tigers
debuts Sept. 14 at 8 p.m. ET/PT.