The South China tiger is the smallest and the most endangered of the tiger subspecies. It was listed as critically endangered in 1996, and conservationists believe that the wild population has become extinct since no animal has been seen in the world since the 1970s. In the mid-1990s, there were about 50 tigers in captivity, and a decade later, the number had risen to 72. The only population outside China is found in South Africa. Today, the number of South China tigers in captivity is estimated at 100 individuals.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the population of the tiger in the wild was estimated at 4,000 individuals. As China began a comprehensive agricultural program, the cat was declared a pest and targeted for eradication. Extensive deforestation, uncontrolled hunting, diminishing prey, and population pressure dramatically reduced the tiger population to less than 200 by 1982. Since the 1970s, no wild tiger has been seen in the wilderness of China, but in 1990, signs of the tiger's presence were found in 11 reserves, although none was physically seen. Between 2000 and 2001, aerial and ground surveillance across five provinces of South Central China provided no evidence of the presence of the South China tiger. In 2007, the Chinese government confirmed that the South China tiger was officially extinct in the wild and began a process to reintroduce the animal. Despite the declaration, several people across Southern China continued to report sightings and attacks on domestic animals by the South China tiger, although no report was officially confirmed.
Why Did The South China Tiger Become Extinct?
Trade in animal body parts and organs is a booming business in China. People, especially in rural areas, hunted the tiger as a source of income. This practice is not limited to the South China tiger but extends to other tigers and bears. A large Chinese population believes that tiger organs have medicinal properties, as well as the ability to grant luck. This is the largest threat to tigers as thousands are killed every year for bones, eyes, teeth, tail, head, fur, and any other part that can be sold. Some tigers were captured and kept in private confines in anticipation of increased profit once the wild population diminished. Unfortunately, most of the captured tigers died before reaching maturity.
The Great Leap Forward initiative of 1958 -1962 sought to transform China from subsistence to commercial farming. Thousands of acres of forest land were cleared to pave the way for agricultural farms at the expense of conservation. Tigers resorted to killing livestock and domestic animals to survive and were branded pests. Hundreds of farmers were also attacked while defending their livestock. In retaliation, farmers in rural China began a massive campaign to exterminate the South China tiger and their offspring. By 1982 the tiger population had dropped to less than 200.
Climate change is an issue that is affecting all species across the world, including humans. It is creating unsuitable conditions for animals to thrive, making it hard for species to adapt to the new environment. Climate change is altering weather patterns and seasons, therefore, altering the feeding, breeding, and migration patterns of tigers. It is causing a disturbance in the food chain as prey is constantly migrating to new environments. A deficiency of food in the wild is pushing tigers closer to humans where encounters are deadly.
Habitat destruction is a problem facing wildlife throughout the world. Clearing land to accommodate farming and the growing population in China is pushing tigers away from their natural habitats and into frequent and deadly contacts with humans. Much of the natural habitat of the South China tiger has been fragmented by deforestation resulting in a low prey population.
The government sought to protect the subspecies through controlled hunting in 1973, but their numbers continued to dwindle, prompting an outright ban on hunting and trade of the South China tiger in 1979. The government and conservation groups developed plans to reintroduce the tiger from captivity to wild enclosures across southern China. Several issues were raised, including the sustainability of the program, and finding a suitable habitat with adequate prey. During the 14th Conference of the Parties to CITES, member countries vowed to end the domestication of tiger and the sale of tiger organs in China.
Rewilding The Tigers
As of 1986, there were 40 South China tigers in China, of which 14 were females. All were offspring of tigers born in captivity. By 2005, the population had grown to 57 individuals, but inbreeding proved to be a great challenge as limited genetic diversity increases the chance of a genetic disorder and possible mutation. Conservation group Save China Tigers secured an agreement with conservationists in South Africa to reintroduce the subspecies into the wild. A pilot program was conducted in China, where several indigenous animals were introduced to their natural environment, including the tiger. A few individuals were exported to the Laohu Valley Reserve in South Africa to gain their natural hunting instincts. Between 2003 and 2004, 4 cubs were sent to South Africa and were later joined by a mature female in 2007. The South African population has since grown to 23 individuals, accounting for about a quarter of the global population of the South China tiger. Some of the animals were to be reintroduced to the wilderness of China, but the African bush has proven to be a better alternative for the South China tiger. The Chinese government had signed an agreement to build a reserve and repopulate the wilderness by 2013. Still, it failed to do so, and the future of the South China tiger is likely to shift to the African continent where land and prey are available.
Mainstream conservationists seem to have lost hope with the South China tiger and have proposed spending the funds and effort in saving the Siberian tiger, which stands a better chance of survival. In 2010, a team of tiger experts visited Laohu Valley Reserve to assess the progress of rewilding the tigers and believed the program was a success after observing the animals hunt and depend on themselves in the natural setting without human intervention.
Possible Sightings In China
In 2007, a villager claimed to have captured photographs of a South China tiger in Shaanxi Province. The local authority in charge of wildlife backed up the claim. The pictures drew suspicion across the world until photography experts concluded that they were not authentic but forged. The villager was charged and sentenced on account of fraud. Between 2000 and 2007, several people had claimed to have seen the tiger in the wild, but the reports stopped soon after the sentencing.