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Chinese tiger as good as extinct: Wildlife reserves not big enough to support cat, says researcher who spent a year on search.
Greg Breining, Chronicle Foreign Service
San Francisco Chronicle, January 9, 2003

Yihuang South China Tiger Reserve -- By the time Ron Tilson reached the highland core of this mountainous tiger reserve, he was bathed in sweat and craving another Indonesian clove- flavored cigarette.

Looking down from a serpentine ridge over stone bridges in inaccessible areas where rivulets cascade down canyons and clouds hang on the peaks, Tilson's experienced gaze locked on an animal feeding on scrub. But it wasn't what he had come thousands of miles to see. It was a cow.

"I can't imagine there would be enough space here for tigers," he said. "Besides, that damn cow would be dead."

A year of such disappointments has led Tilson, a renowned tiger researcher and conservation director of the Minnesota Zoo, to conclude that the South China tiger (Panthera tigris amoyensis) -- the rarest of the world's surviving subspecies of tigers -- is the latest to become extinct in the wild.

"Even if a few remaining individuals or small populations remain, no existing protected areas or habitat are sufficiently large, healthy or undisturbed enough to retain genetically or demographically viable (tiger) populations," he wrote in an as-yet unpublished paper.

The South China tiger is a sleek cat, averaging about 300 pounds. For the past 2,000 years, the animal has been the subject of Chinese art and literature and revered by many as a symbol of strength and power and a living spirit of the nation's sacred mountains. It is also the only tiger that lives wholly within China's borders and is reportedly being considered as the mascot of the 2008 Olympic Games.

In past years, Chinese officials have taken important steps to save their beloved symbol. The government says there are fewer than 30 in the wild and some 50 more in Chinese zoos.

In 1979 China outlawed tiger hunting, and in 1995 it declared the animal's survival a top conservation priority. About two dozen reserves were then created, along with a breeding center in the mountains of Fujian province. This year, the government plans to convert 16 million acres of cultivated land back to forests and relocate some 4,000 families to expand the reserves, according to the China Daily.


The South China tiger is not the only subspecies on the verge of extinction.

Wild tiger populations have fallen since the turn of the century from some 100,000 to current estimates of 7,500, according to TigerAid Foundation, an advocacy group based in San Francisco.

Tigers are disappearing because of destruction of their natural habitat, uncontrolled hunting, poaching and a thriving international black market in tiger products. A full skeleton can be worth more than $61,000, while a tiger penis in Japan can fetch as much as $27,000 because it is believed to increase sexual potency, according to Traffic North America, the wildlife monitoring arm of the World Wildlife Fund.

Bali, Java and Caspian tigers are already extinct -- both wild and captive. Indo-Chinese, Bengal, Siberian and Sumatran tigers are seriously threatened with populations ranging from as low as 500 for the Siberian and Sumatran subspecies to as many as 4,500 for the Bengal tiger.

Tilson, who was invited in 2001 by Chinese officials to conduct a census and furnish photographic evidence of wild South China tigers, came to the conclusion that the only survivors are in captivity after visiting eight reserves in four provinces from March to December. Tilson found signs of humans, pigs, small mountain cats and a wild goat called a serow, but no tigers.

"I expected to find wilderness areas where there were tigers," Tilson said. "I was concerned by how little prey we saw -- or signs of it. When you add up all those pieces, it convinced me there probably aren't any tigers left in the wild."

His grim conclusion, which included the opinion that current reserves are too small and mountainous to support viable tiger populations, was finally made public two months ago and created a stir with Chinese wildlife managers responsible for protecting the fabled animal.

Wang Weisheng, the South China Tiger program manager for the State Forestry Administration in Beijing, said Tilson hadn't spent enough time and traveled too little to authoritatively conclude that the tiger was gone. He said he continued to receive reports from villagers who had seen and heard tigers or found their footprints, excrement and remains of cattle they had killed.

"To say that the Chinese tiger is already extinct is not objective," Wang wrote in a recent rebuttal. "I firmly believe that there must be Chinese tigers in the wild."

But Tilson says Wang and other Chinese officials must face reality. "I want to move the Chinese authorities out of denial," he said.

As recently as the 1950s, there were 4,000 South China tigers, according to the nonprofit Save China's Tigers, based in London.

But under slogans such as "Man Must Conquer Nature," Mao Zedong led a campaign that leveled forests and labeled tigers as pests. Villagers were lauded for killing them with traps, poisons and crossbows.


With the race on to save the tiger, 10 Chinese zoos will start giving Viagra to captive male tigers with no sex drive, according to a recent report by Xinhua news agency. Experts say years of captivity have wiped out their sexual desire.

And in Beijing, Wang -- the South China Tiger program manager -- said the government would also launch an ambitious program to reintroduce captive tigers into the wild.

At the Meihuashan South China Tiger Breeding Center in Fujian province, several tigers are learning to kill domestic goats released in a two-acre enclosure. According to this plan, the third generation will learn to hunt before being released into reserves.

In a second program engineered by Quan Li, founder of Save China's Tigers, captive tigers will be shipped to South Africa. There, they will learn to hunt at a wildlife reserve before returning to a fenced-off safari-type park in Fujian.

Meanwhile, the debate rages over Tilson's findings.

Peter Jackson, adviser to the Cat Specialist Group of the World Conservation Union, says the conclusion that the South China tiger is extinct in the wild is credible.

"It would be sad to see another regional tiger disappear, and particularly one that existed in roughly the area where the tiger is thought to have evolved," he said. "But it has been considered as good as extinct for years."


Since the turn of the last century, the wild tiger population has fallen from some 100,000 to about 7,500. In the past 50 years, three subspecies have been lost to extinction - the Bali, Javan and Caspian tigers. Experts estimate that the 10,000 captive-bred tigers in private hands in the United States outnumber all tigers living in the wild. To view a map and detailed information, please click here now.

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