An important part of the process of tiger conservation is to get as many tigers into their natural habitats as possible. However, for this to be successful, these tigers have to be able to care for themselves and their young, have to be healthy and fit, and not have a tendency to attack human beings living in nearby settlements.
Because tigers remain rather mysterious to modern scientists and researchers, they are relatively difficult animals to rehabilitate successfully. Many factors have to be taken into consideration (the subspecies, the diet based on its original habitat, its level of tameness, and its affinity for human flesh, for example). In addition, the entire rehabilitation venture requires that time and money be invested; both of which tend to be scarce commodities today.
Tigers that have been taken into captivity may be there as a result of being injured in the wild, captured by local villagers concerned for their well-being, or born to a mother in a zoo or park.
The most important life lessons for the tiger before its release into the wild will be how to hunt and how to defend itself against other predators (which are usually other male tigers).
Once the tiger has been kept in captivity, even for a relatively short period of time, it will quickly become accustomed to being fed by human hands; not having to hunt for its survival. The first step is to “un-train” this habit.
This is usually done by first leaving the carcasses of wild game in the tiger enclosure; forcing them to sniff it out before finding and eating it. This also gets the tiger used to the scent and taste of wild meat, rather than that of chicken, or whatever the specified diet of the organisation caring for it dictates.
Once the tiger has become used to the wild meat, the zoo or park may begin to introduce live prey that smells and tastes similar to the carcasses for which the tiger has developed a taste. This has not always been met with approval from animal anti-cruelty organisations, despite the fact that it is natural for the tiger to hunt such prey in the wild. Therefore, not all parks or reserves do this. It is legal in South Africa, as well as in various other countries.
During the rehabilitation process, the role of human beings needs to be drastically limited, so that tigers do not view people as a source of their survival. In fact, all the humans involved should be doing is monitoring the process from an external location and stepping in should there be an emergency.
Once a tiger is deemed ready to be released into the wild, it will first be tagged so that the scientists can monitor its location, feeding and reproductive habits. If there are any signs of the tiger not coping within the first few days and weeks, the scientists should be able to remove the animal from the wild and continue the rehabilitation process in safety.
The ultimate goal of rehabilitating a tiger is to do so to the extent that it will be able to train its young, so that it can produce a line of capable, healthy tigers that are able to boost the population numbers.