Quan Li, the 46-year-old Beijing native who is known as "the woman trying to save Chinese tigers," says her life is defined by two love stories, both of which are a mix of sweetness and agony.
"I have always loved cats," says Quan cradling a black cat on her lap in her Beijing apartment dotted with sculptures, paintings, cushions and toys featuring tigers, leopards and cheetahs.
She says she has been keeping cats as pets since her childhood even though her parents, both serving in the army, were strongly against it.
Over the past two decades, Quan has experienced many changes, moving from one country to another, mainly in Western Europe, except for the two years between 1986 and 1988 when she pursued her MBA at the Wharton Business School in the United States. Over the years, she also changed her profession - from teacher to fashion industry executive.
But her passion for cats, "among the most beautiful creatures in nature," remains.
"I love all cats, big or small, wild or tame," Quan says. "I love the unity of opposites displayed in their character: their soft, smooth coats and elegant contours form an aesthetic whole; their wild nature and speed indicate their strength; their lazy and laidback nature contrasts with their explosive power - a perfect combination!"
For a long time, Quan dreamed about spending all her time traveling across the world to see all kinds of cats.
Quan came close to realizing that dream when she quit her job in 1997 in Italy so as to join her then boy friend and current husband Stuart Bray, an international banker based in London.
She came to know Bray when they were both studying at Wharton Business School. While they fell in love soon after their graduation, they lived separately in pursuit of their separate careers.
By the time she moved to London, Quan was already heading Gucci's worldwide licensing business.
"But in the end, I discovered that fashion is all about now and endless change. Most of the time it deviates from beauty simply for the sake of 'change,'" Quan says.
She lost her interest and the agony of separation also became increasingly intolerable. At that time, Bray was also thinking of an early retirement. The two then took a vacation to a wildlife park in South Africa.
Quan recalls that it was her first exposure to life in the wild and how it benefited from eco-tourism.
"For the first time, I realized what wildlife conservation really meant and that was sustainable development," says Quan. "I said to myself, 'why can't this concept be applied to wildlife conservation in China?'"
Quan Li with a South China tiger cub. Photos courtesy of Quang Li
After her trip to Namibia in the summer of 1998, this desire developed into a sense of mission.
During this trip, Quan came across a pet cheetah newly released back into the wild soon after the country enforced its prohibition of private wildlife breeding.
Quan was in a jeep when the cheetah approached her. "When I looked at the cheetah, he was looking at me too," Quan recalls. "At that moment, I read the unbelievable message in his eyes, desire, begging and sadness."
Quan says she could never forget that look. "It told me the fragility and loneliness an animal experiences when it has lost the ability to survive in the wild," says Quan. "I worried about that cheetah and even tried to find him but I never saw him again. That sad memory kept haunting me."
Quan decided to devote herself to the conservation of wildlife in China. She went to the State Forestry Administration (SFA) and said she would like to do something to help protect Chinese tigers, by which she actually meant Siberian tigers since at that time she had little knowledge of South China tigers.
Native to China, South China tigers are also known as Chinese Tigers, Amoy tigers or panthera tigris amoyensis. As direct descendants of the ancient tigers, all other tiger species in the world can trace their roots to these tigers. It is also the prototype embedded in China's tiger culture, like the Chinese zodiac and traditional Chinese literature and paintings.
However, with fewer than 30 remaining in the wild and about 60 kept in zoos, even less the number of giant pandas, they are among the world's top 10 species on the verge of extinction.
While some major conservation groups have written off the Chinese Tiger as "functionally extinct", Quan refuses to call it quits.
"Many people don't understand the goal is not just to save a few endangered tigers but to save a Chinese cultural symbol," says Quan, who is herself born in the Year of the Tiger.
In August 2000, Quan convinced Bray to help fund the Save China's Tigers Foundation in London.
"He was reluctant at first," Quan says. Yet, after a few field visits to China and convinced by Quan's determination and the Chinese government's full support, Bray joined her effort, which Quan jokes is a demonstration of the Chinese saying, "love me, love my crow."
In 2002, the foundation negotiated an agreement between China and South Africa for a joint project designed to reintroduce the offspring of zoo animals back into the wild.
Basically the project aims to take zoo-born tigers from China, release them into the wild and allow them to learn to hunt for themselves again in South Africa and then breed them before returning their wild off-springs back to China. Save China's Tigers provides the funding for the project, which includes the purchase of a 33,000-hectare estate in the semi-desert Karoo region of South Africa, which is currently known as Laohu Valley Reserve.
Since 2003, four tigers have undergone training to return to the wild at Laohu Valley Reserve, located 600 km from Johannesburg. They have learnt to cope with the elements and to catch a variety of prey from wild guinea fowl and hares to blesbok. They have learnt the necessary hunting skills using stalking and camouflage techniques.
The most exciting recent news was the birth of the first male cub on Nov 23, 2007. Currently, the cub, soon to be three months old, is still hand-reared in a nearby wildlife sanctuary. But it will soon return to the reserve for training to live in the wild. If everything goes to plan, this cub might become the first to be reintroduced to the wild of China.
But things haven't gone on as smoothly as Quan had hoped.
Her dedication to the conservation of South China tigers, a species regarded by many as "too late to be saved," her unconventional conservation method which involves relocations of the rare animals and her lack of prior knowledge and experience in wildlife conservation, have come under fire.
Quan admits that in the beginning, she was shocked and confused but decided to brush aside the criticisms and concentrate on her conservation efforts. Gradually, as the project made progress, the critics quietened down. At the same time, Quan finds herself joined by more in her efforts.
Among them is a cleaner who once donated all the coins he had collected, 17.9 pounds in total, to the charity.
No one knew how hard it would be to start and manage the project. Quan admits that even she had not anticipated how costly, complicated and time consuming it would be.
She says she finds few occasions when she can stay at home for an undisturbed dinner. Quan adds she feels guilty when she thinks of her husband who could have retired and enjoyed an easy life, yet has returned to work to raise funds for her project.
"Occasionally he might complain about not being able to enjoy a meal prepared by me," Quan says. "That always makes me sad. But as always, it ends up that he feels guiltier by saying that since no one knows better than him, how busy I am."
Despite all the progress so far, her ambitious plan, which has so far cost approximately $10 million, won't succeed until the re-trained tigers are released back to the wild in China.
To achieve that, the establishment of a pilot reserve for the eventual return of these tigers is imperative.
So far, two places, Zixi in Jiangxi province and Liuyang in Hunan province, have been recommended to the State Forestry Administration after careful study.
According to Quan, it will take at least 30 million yuan ($4.1 million) for the first phase of the construction, and a total of $20 million to fully restore in the region an ecosystem that's ideal for the survival of the South China tiger in the wild.
"Saving the Chinese tiger is a huge project, and it has just started," Quan says. "From time to time, I feel that this project actually controls me more than I control it I will for sure either continue the project until it succeeds, or give up when I really cannot salvage the situation. This project is without doubt a challenge to me and worth devoting the rest of my life to."