Trading in a prominent job in the fashion industry to start a conservation charity might not be the most obvious career progression, but then, Li Quan, WG’89, G’96, has never been one to follow a conventional path.

Quan, who used to design her own clothes as a teenager and later became worldwide head of licensing for Gucci, says she has always been moved by beautiful things. Founding Save China’s Tigers (SCT) four years ago was just a natural extension of that passion. “Tigers are surely one of nature’s most beautiful designs. I’m helping restore the environment and the eco-system, just as nature designed it. What project could be more beautiful?” she says.

At the heart of SCT’s mission is the endangered Chinese tiger. Of eight subspecies of tigers, only five have sur­vived and the Chinese tiger is the scarcest among them. There are less than a hundred left in the world—60 of which are in zoos.

Quan first thought of starting a conservation organization a few years ago when she visited wildlife reserves in Africa. “It was extremely exciting. That was when I first saw how wildlife and eco-tourism can help each other,” she says.

In the African eco-tourism model the felines are used as “flagship species” to attract tourists. Revenue from tourism can then bolster both the animal’s habitat and the local community with jobs and other opportunities.

Inspired, Quan wondered if she could apply the African conservation model in China. She began trawling available scientific research about tigers and developing important alliances with China’s State Forestry Administration and Center for Wildlife Research. In October 2000, SCT was launched in London and later registered in the US and Hong Kong.

For Quan, who had no experience in the non-profit world, SCT was a far cry from her days at Gucci. She hired a consulting firm and a law firm to set up the charity. Her husband, Stuart Bray WG’89, an investment banker, contrib­uted funding for the project.

As SCT’s resources are limited, Quan relies on the help of volunteers, and she’s learned to keep administrative costs low. “I’ve had to act as my own program officer, accountant, secretary, media officer, and PR manager,” she says.

In addition to raising awareness about the tiger’s plight, SCT is actively working to increase the tiger population. Tiger cubs are transported to a camp in South Africa for “rewilding.” They will eventually be brought back to a pilot preserve in China, where they will be reintroduced to their native habitat.

As SCT works toward its goal of relocating 10 cubs, Quan’s conviction for the cause has grown in tandem with her love for the animal. “Recently, I had the chance to be very close to Madonna, the newest female cub just transported to South Africa. She was weak from dehydration and required medical attention. The vet decided we should just hold her still while he treated her. When I held her claw, she appeared to be very tender, and didn’t roar, protest or resist.”

But SCT has also come up against its share of challenges. Rather than a cross-organizational, community-minded effort, Quan has found that conservation is in fact a deeply political business. SCT has faced unexpected censure and even “malicious personal attacks” from some experts who have criticized her for-profit background. “Because we’ve acted boldly, the opposition has been particularly strong. So we’re particularly grateful to our supporters for standing by us,” Quan says.

Quan, undeterred by the criticism, continues to fight for her vision. “I’ve always been quite rebellious, and thinking differently has been the key to finding alternative ways and solutions to saving the Chinese tigers from extinction. There is a Chinese saying—‘Qihunanxia’—meaning: Riding the tiger and hard to get off.”