For the First Time in Three Decades, a Rare South China Tiger Is Confirmed to Be Alive in the Wild
"There has been no record of the survival of wild South China Tigers in more than thirty years, and it was only an estimate that China still had twenty to thirty such wild tigers."
-- Lu Xirong, South China Tiger Research Team
An extremely rare South China Tiger, long thought to be extinct in the wild, was captured on film by a farmer from Zhenping County in Shaanxi Province on October 3rd. This momentous occasion marked the first time that the cat had been positively identified in Shaanxi since 1964. (See photo above.)
Fifty-two-year-old Zhou Zhenglong from the village of Wencai snapped seventy-one photographs of the tiger which were later authenticated by the Shaanxi Forestry Department. For his discovery, Zhou was rewarded with 20,000 yuan (US$2,666).
Although no official sightings of the critically endangered cats had been confirmed in more than three decades, some researchers nonetheless had maintained all along that between twenty and thirty of the magnificent animals were still hanging on in mountainous areas of southern and central China. For instance, the South China Tiger Research Team, which was established in 2006, had previously received reports of seventeen sightings by villagers plus ten reports of either individuals or animals having been bitten by them.
Another six persons have come forward to claim that they had heard the tiger's distinctive roar. The researchers themselves have found paw prints, scat, hair, and teeth belonging to the animals.
"There has been no record of the survival of wild South China Tigers in more than thirty years, and it was only an estimate that China still had twenty to thirty such wild tigers," Lu Xirong, leader of the thirty-person research team, told China Daily on October 12th. (See "Wild Tiger Spotted Over Thirty Years After 'Extinction'.")
After Zhou's photographic work was made public, additional evidence has surfaced that Panthera tigris amoyensis is indeed still alive in Zhenping County. According to the rescue group Save China's Tigers, one of them attacked a cow on October 5th and a black bear was killed and eaten by one of them earlier on September 13th.
In response to these sightings, the Forestry Department has asked the Zhenping government to ban hunting in the area and to establish inspection and observation posts so as to restrict access by the public. It has also asked the provincial authorities in Shaanxi for permission to convert the area into a reserve for the cats. (See Shanghai Daily, October 16, 2007, "Hunting Banned in South China Tiger Habitat.")
In the meantime, the Forestry Department is going to attempt to count the tigers, delineate their habitat, study their activities, and draft guidelines on how to best protect them. Press reports do not broach the subject, but most likely the tigers will be repeatedly trapped and fitted with radio collars. (See Cat Defender posts of October 2, 2007 and May 4, 2006 entitled, respectively, "Chinese Mountain Cats Are Under Assault from Fur Traffickers, Farmers, Global Warming, and Wildlife Officials" and "Scientific Community's Use of High-Tech Surveillance Is Aimed at Subjugating, Not Saving, the Animals.")
Often called the mother of all tigers, the South China Tiger is believed to be the stem species from which the other eight subspecies have evolved. As late as the 1950s there were as many as four-thousand of the animals spread out over the Guangxi Autonomous Region and the provinces of Guangdong, Hunan, Jiangxi, and Shaanxi.
The tigers first came under assault by the communists and then by the capitalists. As part of his Great Leap Forward, Mao declared them, along with leopards and wolves, to be enemies of the people and by 1982 eradication campaigns had reduced their ranks to fewer than two-hundred.
In addition to Mao's brutality and abysmal stupidity, the tigers have been shot for attacking both individuals and livestock. Fur traffickers still covet their valuable pelts and their various body parts are a staple of Chinese herbal remedies. China's embrace of capitalism has sparked massive development that has shrunk and fragmented their Lebensraum as well as significantly reduced their available food supply.
The tigers therefore demonstrate in a microcosm the total intellectual and moral bankruptcy of both the capitalistic and communistic models of economical and political organization. In addition to their rather obvious flaws, both systems are equally antagonistic toward both the animals and the environment. (See Judith Shapiro's 2001 tome entitled Mao's War Against Nature.)
Even big labor and many self-styled liberals in the West have little or no regard for nature. For example, despite his exemplary work in promoting universal health care and opposing the war in Iraq, Michael Moore is a lifelong member of the National Rifle Association (NRA). New Dealers, such as Garrison Keillor, treat the animals and Mother Earth with disdain.
Recent conservation efforts in China have concentrated on increasing the number of roe deer and gorals that the tigers prey upon and educating villagers and farmers as to the intrinsic value of the animals. Despite these efforts, poaching is difficult to eradicate and there are already too few remaining members of the species for it to be genetically viable over the long haul. Consequently, there are not many experts who expect the tigers to survive.
Therefore, captive breeding programs are receiving considerable attention and at the moment there are approximately fifty-nine tigers imprisoned in Chinese zoos. (See photos above and below.)
Most notably, an unspecified number of tiger cubs have been sent to a reserve near Philippolis in South Africa where they are being trained to fend for themselves in the wild. Their offspring then will be returned to China where they will be assigned to reserves while their parents will remain in South Africa and continue to breed.
A similar type of project is also under way in Fujian Province. If all goes as planned, the first graduates of these experimental training programs will be returned to the wild to coincide with the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.
It remains to be seen if this is practicable, however. Normally, animals bred in captivity do not fare well once they are released into the wild. (See BBC, October 5, 2007, "Captive Breeding 'Weakens' Beasts.")
Should they become extinct, South China Tigers will join their Balinese cousins (Panthera tigris balica) that disappeared in 1937. None of them were ever bred in captivity.
Almost surely extinct also are Caspian Tigers (Panthera tigris virgata) and the Javan Tiger (Panthera tigris sondaica). The last confirmed sighting of a Caspian occurred in 1968 although an occasional unconfirmed sighting is still reported even today. The last official sighting of the Javan Tiger was in 1979 although there were several unconfirmed sightings of it during the 1990s.
Of the five remaining subspecies of tigers, only twelve-hundred to eighteen-hundred representatives of the Indochinese Tiger (Panthera tigris corbetti) remain in the wild and, consequently, it is listed as endangered by the World Conservation Union (IUCN).
The Sumatran Tiger (Panthera tigris sumatrae) is in even worse shape with only four-hundred to five-hundred of them estimated to be still alive. It is accordingly listed as critically endangered. (See Cat Defender post of April 13, 2007 entitled "Killing and Torturing Wild and Domestic Cats in Order to Create Toygers Is Not Going to Save Sumatran Tigers.")
Even India's once abundant population of Bengal Tigers (Panthers tigris tigris) are now under assault from population growth, developers, and poachers. As few as fifteen-hundred of them remain in India with possibly another thousand or so disbursed throughout Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, and Myanmar. The IUCN accordingly lists them as critically endangered.
Noted conservationist Valmik Thapar expressed his frustration with the deplorable situation when he told the Washington Post on October 16th, "... all the government cares about is (sic) call centers, shopping centers, and apartments. That leaves the tiger situation in a miserable mess." (See "Poaching and Population Threaten India's Tigers.")
Of the two remaining subspecies, there are approximately six-hundred to eight-hundred Malayan Tigers (Panthera tigris jacksoni) remaining in the wild as well as around five-hundred Siberian Tigers (Panthera tigris altaica). The former is listed as endangered while the latter is critically endangered.
The South China Tiger's amazing return from oblivion is the second piece of riveting conservation news to come out of China in recent months. Back in August, a Yangtze River Dolphin known by its scientific name as Lipotes vexillifer but called Baiji in Mandarin was sighted after it, too, had been declared extinct.
Although the odds are stacked against them, the petit fait that these two beleaguered species are stubbornly clinging to existence under exceedingly difficult circumstances presents the Chinese with a golden opportunity to atone for centuries of exploitation and abuse and, possibly, even to save them. It is an effort decidedly worth making in spite of the dim outlook.
The Chinese authorities already have garnered high praise from conservationists for their efforts to save the golden monkeys of Yunnan Province but they are fighting an uphill battle in order to save the gibbons of Hainan Province. (See Reuters, October 26, 2007, "Monkeys, Apes Teeter on Brink of Extinction: Report" and The Independent, October 26, 2007, "Now Relentless Loss of Habitat Threatens First Primate Extinction for a Century.")
Photos: Save China's Tigers.