The South China Tiger


2010 was the Chinese year of the tiger. So that must have been a great year for the Chinese tiger, right? Take a minute to think about this.

Of the eight original subspecies of tiger, three are now extinct. The Bali tiger was wiped out from the effects of deforestation and poaching in the 1940s, the Caspian in the 1970s, and the Javan tiger in the 1980s. The remaining five are the Bengal, the Siberian, the Sumatran, the Indochinese, and the South China tiger. The South China tiger, (pantheris tigris amoyensis) or Amoy also known as Xiamen or the Hunan tiger, is believed to be the antecedent of all tiger subspecies.

So it’s a very important animal. That said, how many would you expect there to be left today...? Believe it or not there are fewer than seventy South China tigers left today, all in captivety, and none has been spotted in the wild for over thirty years?  ‘I’ve never even heard of the South China tiger!’ I hear you cry…unfortunately you’re not alone. 

The tigers we see on TV in books and in zoos are usually: Bengals, Siberians, or Sumatrans. It’s very unlikely that you’ve seen a South China tiger in a documentary or even in a photograph. So is it any wonder that this incredibly important subspecies is on the brink of extinction and receives the least amount of funding and attention?

Due to the many captive breeding programs it is unlikely that tigers will ever become extinct, the high profile of the Bengal and Siberian subspecies has secured interest and funding lifting the numbers in captivity to the extent of excess. Unfortunately the South China tiger has had no such exposure and has been left to rely on a few dedicated conservationist and researchers who have carried on with the thankless and seemingly impossible task of saving this subspecies from extinction.

Most of the remaining captive South China tigers are old or diseased due to inbreeding and malnutrition, and have descended from only eight founders.  This is probably why many experts have given up on them. The high profile panda breeding program has successfully nurtured the panda population back to around a thousand. The wild Siberian tiger population rose from 250 to 300 in five years, and in the last century the white South African rhino was revived from only fifty to a staggering 10,400. This would suggest that it is never too late. 

In the late 1950s there were approximately 4,000 South China tigers in the wild. Ironically in 1959 when the Siberian tiger was acknowledged as an endangered species, the South China tiger was declared a pest by the Chinese government, and a bounty was placed on its head. The species was hunted mercilessly for the next twenty years, which along with the destruction of its habitat has placed this mysterious creature at the very top of the endangered species list. Officially none has been sighted for over thirty years, but some experts believe there to be around twenty still scattered around the south eastern provinces. 

In 1984 the practice of tiger hunting in China was made illegal. The problems now facing the South China tiger are illegal poaching, to fuel the demand for tiger parts for use in traditional Chinese medicines and the relentless tide of the human population. 

A survey funded by the US Fish and Wildlife Fund, the Chinese government and the WWF, was undertaken in 2001-2002 in an attempt to census the remaining wild tigers. Although no tigers were sighted, many telltale signs were recorded.

The good news is the Chinese government is now totally committed to saving the South China tiger. Extensive education programs for schools and villagers are taking place, money is being used to reclaim agricultural land and relocate families that surround the reserves in an attempt to increase the wild tigers’ territories and widen the corridors that link them together. An attempt to eradicate poaching by enacting new laws and punishments and implementing the help of locals as watchdogs while at the same time instilling a pride in the knowledge that they can help restore a natural treasure, are all extremely positive actions. 

In terms of animals becoming extinct we think of a bygone age when man plundered the world’s resources without knowledge of the consequences, yet three subspecies of tiger have become extinct in the last fifty years, the fourth could join them at the very beginning of this century. The plight of all tigers in the wild is critical, it is estimated that Bengal tigers are still shot by poachers and villagers at the rate of one a day. If serious intervention isn’t taken soon we could lose the wild tiger forever in as little as five years time. 

When we think of past generations we think of ignorance, we have the technology to prevent the extinction of one of the most precious animals on earth, yet we do very little. What will future generations think of us? 

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