South China Morning Post— In early 1903, a 40-year-old big-game hunter, Dr William Lord Smith, who had stalked Kodiak bears in Alaska and shot lions, tigers, elephants and rhinos from the safety of a hot-air balloon in Africa, heard there were man-eating beasts roaming the hills of Fujian province. The American was immediately gripped by the prospect of bagging a South China tiger
Swarthy, moustachioed Smith set off, stopping in Japan and Manchuria before sailing down the China coast to the port of Amoy (now Xiamen. He rested a few days in the European enclave of Gulangyu Island, where between cleanings of his prized hunting rifles, he hit it off with a local tiger hunter named Taikoff, whom Smith tasked with assembling bearers, a cook and men who knew the villages and monasteries of the interior. The deal was simple – 30 cents a day per man, an extra $5 any day a tiger was killed.
Assembled and provisioned, the expedition left the comfort and relative modernity of Amoy and headed inland, initially guided by the smoke from village fires, lit to keep tigers away. Even in the first years of the 20th century, the South China tiger’s habitat was being encroached on by farmers growing lowland crops such as rice – or opium – all but inviting big cats from nearby hill caves to feed on dogs, goats and the occasional human.
Recalling his adventures in The Cave Tiger of China (1920), Smith described himself in unabashedly fearless terms, willing to get down on his hands and knees, crawl into dark, dank caves, armed with only a flashlight and rifle, not knowing if he’d meet “… whiskers bristling in a snarl of rage as [the tiger] blinks at the bright torches through narrowed eyes”, and, “if the tiger is at home your work is simple and you are not bothered by choice of action”.
Like many memoirs of the time, Smith’s was rife with self-regard. “Retreat is impossible and you have but one thing on hand: to kill the tiger.” Though he also admitted to always sending in one of the Chinese in his employ ahead of him.
After several weeks, however, the party hadn’t killed one. Smith was often sick from a bad diet and dirty water, and once located, tigers’ caves often had several exits and were found empty. When the group did hear distant growls, the few shots made went hopelessly wide of distant targets. Temptingly tethered goats were attacked, but silently, in the night, and all Smith found the next morning was a carcass and a trail of pawprints soon lost to the heavy rains.
Pulaukuo Village was remote and poor, the locals growing sugar cane and whatever root vegetables they could in the stony ground. Just a couple of days before Smith’s arrival, a man stealing sweet potatoes had been killed by a tiger. The streets were deserted after dark, windows and doors barred.
Smith followed some Pulaukuo hunters up a hill and into the killer’s suspected lair, but the tiger escaped through the other end of the cavern. Smith scrambled out in pursuit and “in a few minutes I reached the top of the ridge and there in front of me, seventy-five yards away, stood the tiger!”
It is difficult to ascertain to what extent Smith’s memoirs of his trips to Fujian were embellished. Recycling his adventures for newspapers years afterwards he recalled human skeletons on cavern floors that hadn’t been there in his initial accounts.
Either way, thanks to Smith and a growing number of trophy hunters throughout the 1920s and 30s, southern China’s tiger population dwindled, and by 1950 the remaining several thousand of what German zoologist Max Hilzheimer had estimated to be 20,000 in 1905, had retreated inland to Jiangxi and Hubei provinces, but still they were not safe.
These majestic big cats even fell under one of Mao Zedong’s nationwide “anti-pest” campaigns during the Great Leap Forward and, by the early 80s, following decades of uncontrolled hunting, deforestation, urbanisation and pollution, the South China tiger population had dipped to fewer than 200 animals. By 1990, fewer than 40 Panthera tigris tigris were estimated to remain in the wild.
The decline is all the more surprising given the mythical status of the tiger as the King of the Beasts, a creature of supernatural powers and longevity, intricately entwined with Chinese culture. One of the four symbols of the Chinese constellation, facing west and symbolising autumn, tigers tended to be observed approaching villages more often in that season.
In folk tales tigers kill bad men and protect the virtuous. Those born in the Year of the Tiger are thought to be brave, strong, stubborn and sympathetic. The body parts of a tiger are believed to bestow energy, courage and strength, and their use in traditional medicine has speeded the population’s decline.
Tigers are now extinct in Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos, with perhaps two dozen remaining in Myanmar and an unknown number in Thailand’s Kayah Karen Tenasserim ecoregion, all thought to be Panthera tigris tigris.
German painter Walter Spies encountered some of the last tigers of Bali (Panthera tigris sondaica) near his home in Ubud. He claimed he fancied one as a pet. European hunters had all but wiped out Balinese tigers by the mid-30s. Smith was instrumental in their eradication, arguing that all Balinese and Javanese tigers were man-eaters, having acquired a taste for human flesh after an ancient tsunami left a host of corpses for them to feast on.
The Malay Peninsula also suffered terribly from tiger attacks – by local variant Panthera tigris jacksoni, honouring tiger conservationist Peter Jackson – owing to the spread of agriculture. In the mid-1800s, Singapore was averaging one attack a day as new plantations crowded into the tigers’ territory.
By the early 1900s they had been almost hunted out of existence and the last wild tiger was killed in the early 30s. Add to that tally the escaped circus tiger that hid under the billiard table at Raffles Hotel in 1902, until it was shot by the headmaster of the Raffles Institution school. Today an estimated 250 tigers survive in Peninsular Malaysia’s forests.
The primeval forests of Hong Kong were also inhabited by tigers, but forest clearance saw them off. One of the last Hong Kong tigers, a Panthera tigris tigris, was thought to be the one that terrorised Sheung Shui, in the New Territories, in 1915. Twenty-one-year-old English police constable Ernest Goucher, along with his colleague, Indian constable Ruttan Singh, were killed by the tiger, along with some villagers. Assistant superintendent Donald Burlingham shot the tiger dead, and made sure it was photographed for the South China Morning Post. It was a large animal – 2.2 metres from nose to tail and weighing 131kg.
For 60 years, its stuffed head remained mounted above the entrance of Central Police Station, in Tai Kwun, until it rotted beyond redemption and was replaced with a sculpture of the big cat. The unfortunate tiger had perhaps arrived in Hong Kong as a refugee, fleeing from Fujian and hunters like Smith.
In 1930, a circus visited Shanghai and camped on wasteland behind the Astor House Hotel. A wild tiger, part of the show, escaped and sought refuge in the lanes and alleyways north of Suzhou Creek. A European police officer and his Sikh colleague headed over to the wasteland with a bloody steak from the Astor’s Grill Room. They tied it to a pole, sat back and waited to see if the tiger would appear.
Somehow, without anybody seeing it, the tiger had crossed the Garden Bridge (Waibaidu) and settled in the Summer House at public gardens on the Bund, by what is now Huangpu Park and the Monument to the People’s Heroes. On discovering the tiger’s hiding place, the European policeman lobbed in the steak to entice the animal out. When the tiger appeared, the Sikh officer unholstered his .455 Webley revolver and shot it dead.
Newspapers reported several cases of escaped circus tigers between the world wars. A tiger shot in Stanley, Hong Kong, in 1942, likely escaped from an Australian travelling circustrapped in the city during the Japanese invasion the previous Christmas. The big cat was killed while roaming near the fence of the Stanley Internment Camp by an Indian policeman, constable Rur Singh. A British internee with butchery experience, Bertram Bradbury, skinned it, while officials of the Hong Kong Race Club were allowed to eat the meat. The tiger’s skin still hangs on display in Stanley’s Tin Hau Temple.
Tiger sightings and mauled livestock continued to be reported in Hong Kong up to the mid-60s, usually in the New Territories. South China tigers are known to roam far when necessary, and are strong swimmers.
It wasn’t until the 70s that tiger hunting was outlawed in China – a controlled-hunting law in 1973 followed by an outright ban in 1977. But it came too late to reverse the decline of Panthera tigris tigris. By the turn of the 21st century it seemed the wild tiger population of China was extinct. Despite extensive searches in Sichuan, Guangdong, Hunan, Jiangxi and Fujian provinces, no tigers have been found. Even the latest technology – trap cameras, GPS, drones – hasn’t revealed wild tigers. Villagers occasionally report sightings
, mostly north of Fujian in Jiangxi and Hubei, but there is no evidence to support them.
There has long been talk of creating tiger reserves and “rewilding” the animals, but little progress has been made. Non-governmental organisations such as Hong Kong-based Save China’s Tigers, which focuses on the South China tiger, are looking to build on South African conservation schemes in order to reintroduce the tiger to southern China. But for now you have to go to far northeast Jilin or Heilongjiang provinces to catch a glimpse of China’s few remaining big cats, all Siberian tigers. The remaining 180 or so South China tigers are found only in zoos. Six cubs were recently born in a zoo in Luoyang, Henan province, but low numbers mean many newborns show signs of inbreeding.
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List, which evaluates extinction threats, the South China tiger is currently “critically endangered, possibly extinct in the wild”.
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