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South China Tiger: reality or legend?
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The South China Tiger was believed extinct in the wild for the past 20 years, but a digital picture recently taken by a local farmer in northwest China's Shaanxi Province supposedly shows the animal has survived. The photos have sparked heated Internet controversy over authenticity, but government officials and experts suggest that the country should take this opportunity to draw up overall protection plans and establish nature reserves for wild tigers.

Big stir caused by little picture

The digital picture, purporting to be a wild tiger crouching in green bushes, was released by the Shaanxi provincial forestry department at a news conference on October 12.

Zhou Zhenglong, 52, a farmer and hunter in Chengguan Township of Zhenping County, took 71 photographs of the "tiger" with a digital camera on the afternoon of October 3, a department spokesman told a news conference.

The next morning, a post on an online forum first voiced strong suspicion about its authenticity, Xinhua News Agency reported, and it has since sparked heated Internet debate.

Some contributors argued that the picture was real, but that the animal was not a real South China Tiger, adding that "it was likely a photograph taken of another photo." Others concluded that, "the photo itself was a hoax because the size of the tiger and the leaves nearby are not in proper proportion."

Some critics explained a tiger needs about 20 square kilometers of habitat for its survival. Zhenping County has a tiger reserve zone of up to 140 square kilometers, so even if the tigers did exist there, it could only be a small community.

Tigers are solitary animals not easily spotted by humans, so it would have been extraordinary for Mr. Zhou to spot and photograph the tiger for two days in a row, they claimed.

They also pointed out that tigers are very vigilant animals. When they see strange animals, their first reaction would be to press themselves flat to the ground and prepare to attack or escape; however, Zhou's photos did not show the tiger in such a position.

Local government response

The Shaanxi Provincial Forestry Department was shocked by the unexpected controversy the photos ignited, Xinhua reported. The issue became even more enigmatic following some self-contradictive explanations offered by Zhou.

He acknowledged he only gave two digital pictures to the forestry department, and that these were not "the clearest ones."

Zhou was given 20,000 yuan (US$2,666) as a reward for finding the tiger by the Shaanxi forestry authorities. But Zhou, believing there was a chance for further rewards from the authorities, refused to show his original photos to reporters or anyone else.

A Shaanxi forestry official defended the authenticity of the picture. "Zhou Zhenglong risked his life in taking these photos, so they are very precious. We were cautious and responsible in releasing them," said Zhu Julong, deputy head of the provincial forestry department.

Zhu said Zhou is not a professional photographer and took the photos in great panic because he was close to the tiger. As a result, many were blurred.

Meanwhile, Sun Chengqian, Deputy Director of the department, declared: "The photos were proved genuine by experts on wildlife and photography we have organized to scrutinize them," and Guan Ke, an official with the department's information office, said he believed the photos were genuine based on his many years of experience shooting wildlife in the province.

The department organized a 30-member research team in 2006 that carried out a search in Zhenping from June last year. It said villagers had reported 17 sightings of South China Tigers and heard their roar at least six times, but the claims could not be confirmed.

They also found footprints, excrement, hair, and teeth during the survey, which led them to believe the tigers still existed in the wild.

The forestry department has banned all hunting around the mountain and ordered checkpoints at the main entrances to the area to prevent uncontrolled entry and protect the endangered species and its habitat.

Academic response

"We didn't expect a picture would cause such a big stir," said Deng Xuejian, a professor from Hunan Normal University. "No matter true or false, it indeed has drawn people's attention to the protection of the South China Tiger. We should take this opportunity to draw up an overall protection plan and apply for establishing a nature reserve in areas around the mountain."

Xu Taoqing, a researcher with the Shaanxi Provincial Institute of Animal Studies, said it would be "simply impractical" for Zhou to bring either a "paper" tiger or a real, domesticated tiger to the mountain for the purposes of faking a photograph, because it was a six-hour walk from the county seat of Zhenping.

Huang Gongqing, an expert with the Suzhou South China Tiger-Breeding Base, said it did not matter whether the photographs were real or not, adding: "If fewer than 100 of the species survive, it is basically impossible for them to reproduce." Huang and his assistants have pioneered the artificial breeding of South China Tigers. Out of the 57 live tigers in the country's zoos, 30 were born at Suzhou Zoo.

Even though the South China Tiger photo is of questionable authenticity, the US-based magazine Science still used it in its latest edition, Xinhua reported on November 9. The magazine quoted Gary Koehler of Washington State's Department of Fish and Wildlife as saying that "it's tremendously exciting news, if it can be substantiated."

But a senior editor with the magazine said the move did not mean the staff believed the photo was authentic, as they remained somewhat suspicions. Nevertheless, in the end, the magazine wanted to express its excitement that the species might be making a "comeback" and its hope that wild South China Tigers still existed, according to China Central Television (CCTV).

Fu Dezhi, a scientist with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said he was very worried about Science's publication of the finding. "It should not make any comment without knowing the full facts."

Central government response

The State Forestry Administration held a press conference on November 8, explaining that "the existence of a single tiger does not necessarily mean there is a tiger community."

Spokesman Cao Qingyao announced that an expert team would be sent to Shaanxi Province very soon to investigate a 1,000 square kilometer area. However, Cao did not say if the investigation was to verify the authenticity of the pictures.

"The Internet debate reflects the fact that more people are concerned about the environment, such as the living conditions and health of wild animals," Cao said. "If it were 20 years ago, no one would care about such a picture of a tiger, or even the tiger itself."

The administration organized a nationwide investigation in 1999 that discovered traces of living tigers in 48 sites, but could not establish an exact number. So far, it has set up six nature reserves to protect South China Tigers.

Cao warned people about setting off on their own tiger hunts, saying "as some areas are offering rewards for tiger pictures, I remind you not to disturb their daily life and take the risk of photographing dangerous animals that can threaten your life."

Wild tigers struggling in China

A "Red List" compiled by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) in 1996 showed fewer than 6,000 wild tigers still existed in Asia and eastern Russia, compared with 100,000 at the beginning of the 20th century, according to the People's Daily. All existing sub-species of tigers are at risk, most notably the South China Tiger.

Statistics from Xinhua show that there were nearly 4,000 South China Tigers in the 1950s. It is estimated that currently there may be no more than 30 left in the wild, while there are about 60 in captivity. Prior to the controversial pictures, no wild South China Tiger had been spotted since October 1986, even though local people reported hearing roars, and finding footprints, hair, and teeth.

Over the past decades, the Chinese government has continuously strengthened its wildlife protection laws to preserve various species and improve their care. The Law on the Protection of Wildlife was adopted in 1988, and articles about punishments for the poaching and smuggling of wild animals under State protection were added to the revised Criminal Law in 1996. An overall wildlife and wild plant protection plan was issued in 2002, stipulating that wild animal resources are owned by the State and the protection of South China Tiger was put at the top of the government work agenda.

The government also gives priority to captive-bred tigers, but since an increasing number of private enterprises are involving themselves in domesticating and breeding animals, specific ownership rules should be spelled out in understandable legal terms, the Nanjing-based Weekend magazine stressed.

International cooperation is also preserving the rare animal. Five South China Tigers have been sent to the 33,000-hectare reserve in South Africa since September 2003 (one died two years ago). The idea is for the tigers to breed and brush up their hunting skills in a wild environment before returning to their native habitat in China.

( by Li Jingrong November 9, 2007)

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