The Shaanxi Forestry Department, which announced last October that a rare wild South China tiger had been spotted, has said sorry for publicizing the photos, but has said nothing about their authenticity.
An embarrassed department apologized to the public in a letter for "curtly publicizing the discovery of the wild South China tiger" on Monday evening.
"Our department held a press conference on October 12 and announced that the wild South China tiger was sighted in Zhenping county. We publicized two photos taken by local farmer Zhou Zhenglong, which aroused public doubts of the photos' authenticity and caused a national controversy", says the "Shaanxi Provincial Forestry Department's letter of Apology to the public".
The letter was sent to Xinhua and other major media in the province by the general affairs office of the provincial government on Monday evening. It didn't mention the authenticity of the photos.
"We didn't report to the superiors according to stipulated procedures and didn't have a spot investigation before we held the press conference. We curtly released the discovery of the South China tiger without substantial proof, which reflects our blundering manner and lax discipline", the letter says.
The general affairs office of the provincial government criticized the department for violating the news release system of the government on Sunday. Normally, the department should report to the provincial publicity department before it holds a press conference.
The Forestry Department said in the press conference that the tiger was snapped by Zhou on October 3 near a cliff, and experts have confirmed that it was a young wild South China tiger. The department also gave Zhou 20,000 yuan (US$2,778) as a prize.
But Internet users and some scientists accused Zhou of making the tiger images with digital software, and local authorities of approving the photographs to bolster tourism.
In December, the State Forestry Administration demanded the provincial forestry department have the photos authenticated by a panel of experts, but no results have been published.
The South China tiger, also called the Amoy or Xiamen tiger, is thought to be the ancestor of all tigers, according to the World Wildlife Fund.
It is considered critically endangered, mainly due to a loss of habitat. By 1996, the tigers numbered only 30 to 80, according to the World Conservation Union's Red List of threatened species.
Today, the tiger is widely believed to be extinct in the wild.
(Xinhua News Agency February 5, 2008)