Kim Hiltrop, a veterinary nurse, feeds a tiger cub after some boisterous playtime. The cub, born at the South African reserve of Laohu Valley, is the first South China tiger born outside China. (Robyn Dixon / Los Angeles Times)

He is a magnificent animal, his coat a glossy amber, his fangs long and sharp. He flicks his long tail and paces restlessly up and down beside the bars of the cage. But this tiger, known only as 327, is on the outside and longs to get in.

He is one of the last few surviving South China tigers, born in a Chinese zoo and sent to South Africa last year as part of a last-ditch effort to save a creature that most of the conservation world regards a lost cause.

In this reserve called Laohu Valley, 327 could have the freedom of a 100-acre bush enclosure and learn to hunt, but he can't shake a lifetime of padding up and down in a concrete cage. The 5-year-old is slowly being weaned from the breeding center, the reserve's only cage, where he feels safest. He is making progress, slowly. At least he is not afraid of the swaying grasses anymore.

Some would see 327 as proof that trying to save the world's most endangered tiger and reestablish wild populations is a hopeless cause.

But not Li Quan, a Beijing-born former fashion executive with a dream so large that many tiger conservationists ridicule her. She and her husband, American investment banker Stuart Bray, are trying to drag the species, almost wiped out in a "pest eradication" campaign by the government of Mao Tse-tung, back from the brink of extinction.

Quan's "rewilding" plan goes like this: China lacks conservation expertise and habitat with adequate prey, so five of the remaining 60 to 70 Chinese zoo tigers have been brought to South Africa, which has both, to breed and to learn to hunt in bush enclosures. The move buys time and builds numbers while the Chinese government restores the habitat for a tiger reserve in China by moving people out and bringing game in.

Conservation groups such as the World Wide Fund for Nature deride the project, saying it is foolish, unscientific and a waste of money.

The most stinging attack came in 2003 from Judy Mills, a tiger conservationist and then-spokeswoman for Conservation International. She called the project "a circus sideshow dressed up as eco-tourism" and said its only outcome would be that "a wealthy dilettante feels as if she has done something. Conservation should be left to conservationists. This woman would be better off giving her money to those who know what to do with it."

Mills, now with the Save the Tiger Fund, said via e-mail there was "consensus in the mainstream conservation community that the very best course of action for bringing back wild tigers in China is to focus on protecting existing wild tiger populations and their habitats."

Quan, who initially hoped her plan would win approval in the conservation world, was disheartened and hurt by the attacks. "But then it turned to energy," she says. "I thought, 'I'm going to stake everything I have to prove you wrong.' "

The five zoo tigers brought to Laohu Valley, in South Africa's Free State province, included four cubs, Cathay, Hope, TigerWoods and Madonna, who arrived between 2003 and 2007. All learned to hunt wild South African game in the 100-acre enclosure, but two years after arriving in 2003, Hope died of heart failure and pneumonia, confirming in critics' minds their view that the plan was a bad idea. And 327, who arrived in September mainly for breeding, so far hasn't mated successfully. (The name comes from his registration number in the "Stud Book" registry of captive tigers.)

The other tigers adapted quickly. They all have their favorite trees and shady places. TigerWoods has a cozy sleeping spot in bulrushes by the river, where small crimson birds flutter just above his head.

In November, a male cub was born at Laohu, the first outside China.

Quan, 45, never planned to run the project herself. But with the tiger conservation world mostly opposed, she has battled to raise funds and find specialists willing to help.

Now she divides her time between her home in London, South Africa, and China. Her team consists of Peter Openshaw, 45, a South African game ranger who left his country's conservation bureaucracy disillusioned because he felt it was going downhill; Tigris Zhang, 25, a Chinese tiger enthusiast and graduate in urban conservation who started a tiger website in high school; and Zhang's wife, Jane Shen, 27, a linguist studying tourism.

So far, Quan and Bray have spent $12 million of their own money, including buying 81,000 acres of South African farmland in 2002 for the project, and have raised about $360,000 in donations.

The silvery grass dances on the lush plains of the Karoo, sheep farming country famous for its wide spaces, blue skies and bountiful lamb. There are few trees, just a scattering of steel windmills and rocky hills disturbing the relentless plains.

Behind the wheel of a hefty SUV, Quan touches the accelerator with her delicate lilac loafer. She's wearing shorts and a sequined cardigan with a kitten design and has features as fine as bone porcelain -- a girlish demeanor that leadssome to underestimate her, overlooking her steely core.

She edges the vehicle over the bank of a river onto a rocky ledge, looking for Cathay and her mate, TigerWoods, parents of the cub. They killed a blesbok -- a small antelope -- the night before, and Cathay is in thick scrubby trees by the river, the tigers' favorite haunt, finishing off the carcass. She gazes languidly at the vehicle.