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The Tigers Come Home 

        All through the spring and summer, the villagers spoke in frightened whispers of a man-eater prowling the mountain forests at night and coming down to drink from the river in the fog. Some of them claimed they had seen him themselves. Mr. Li said the tiger shone golden like the sun, was bigger than a water buffalo, and could bound across a rice paddy in two strides. One of Uncle Liu’s friends claimed the tiger had the Chinese character for “king” written in the stripes on his forehead, and Mr. Zhou said the tiger’s teeth were as long and sharp as daggers, and that his legs were as thick and strong as old tree trunks. The men in the village used words like “magnificent,” “fierce,” “powerful,” “awesome,” and even “gigantic,” to describe him. 

 

        “He must be ginormous!” my friend, Da Long, exclaimed, but my sister insisted it was more likely “hunormous.” The neighbor down the street even insisted that the cat’s eyes burned like fire and that his roar was as the voice of doom.

 

        My mother and aunt just laughed and laughed. Their friend, Dr. Zhang, from the Beijing Tiger Research Center in the capital, said there probably weren’t any tigers in the mountains anymore; they had more than likely died out in the region a few years ago. She visited our class at school and told us that there was a plan to bring six tigers raised in zoos near the coast and release them into a small reserve up on the side of the mountain. There they would be safe from poachers and we’d be safe, since they’d be behind a fence, and they wouldn’t come down into the village at night. They would be back home, “where they should be,” she would say with a smile.

 

        When Dr. Zhang and her colleagues from the Beijing Tiger Research Center brought the first tiger up to the reserve in a crate on the back of a truck, my friends and I had a good laugh. He wasn’t “magnificent,” or “powerful” at all. He wasn’t much bigger than my little sister’s cat! He did have the character “king” on his forehead, but his eyes didn’t burn like fire and his roar was rather silly, really. This was the “fierce king?”

“This is Xiao Hu. He looks cute, doesn’t he?” Dr. Zhang asked me. “He’s just a cub. But don’t be disappointed. His mother is coming up in another truck. She’s much bigger.”

 

        “Is she ginormous?” Da Long asked.

 

        “More like ‘hunormous,’” Dr. Zhang smiled.

 

        Xiao Hu was small but jumped in circles and rolled around in the grass. His mother was groggy from the tranquilizer the zoologists had given her to make it easier to transport her. The male tigers were bigger than her but were groggy as well.

 

        “Don’t worry,” Dr. Zhang assured us. They’ll be fine, hunting and rolling around like Xiao Hu in a day or so. And Xiao Hu will grow fast. In six months or so he will be bigger than his mom.”

 

        “Will they stay in the enclosure forever?” Da Long asked.

 

        “We want to ‘rewild’ them: to train them to hunt again and then release them into a larger preserve further off in the mountains where they’ll live as their ancestors did,” Dr. Zhang explained. “But for now they will live here.”

 

        “Why not leave them in the zoo where people can see them?” I asked

 

        “Well, there are still tigers like these in zoos, so people will still be able to see them. But they don’t really belong in zoos,” Dr. Zhang explained. “Until a few years ago, tigers lived in these mountains, and they belong here. So we’ve brought them back home.”

 

        I faced my friends and we all smiled at each other. I felt thankful that the tigers were returning to their natural habitats.