South China tigers go the way of the Yeti
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, January/February 1999:
BANGKOK, BEIJING––1998, the Chinese “Year
of the Tiger,” ended with an admission from Wang Menghu,
deputy secretary-general of the China Zoological Protection
Association, that the South China population of Asian tigers
has gone to the realm of the yeti––the legendary “abominable
On December 14, Chinese forestry and wildlife conservation
director Zhang Jianlong and colleague Lie Yongfan
told the world through the government news agency Xinhua
that official investigations underway since 1984 have found no
evidence that the yeti ever existed.
“All reported sightings were actually other wild animals,”
Elaborated Yan Xun, director of the 1,800-squaremile
Shennongjia Reserve, “There are no basic primate foods
such as berries or broadleaf trees in the mountains of
Shennongjia, where most yeti enthusiasts believe the mysterious
But unlike the yeti, tigers were once plentiful in the
provinces of Hunan, Jiangxi, Jiangsu, and Fujian, which
reportedly had more than 4,000 as recently as 1950.
The last wild tiger seen in South China was poached
in 1994, in southern Hunan. The 53 remaining South China
tigers are all captives, in zoos, of whom only half are of reproductive
age, Wang said.
Some of the lost genetic lines may persist in captivity
elsewhere, but captive tiger stocks have been so mixed and
mingled that identifying them, though technically possible
through DNA testing, may never be done.
The “Year of the Tiger” may have ended close to zero
hour for wild tigers in Thailand.
Thai prime minister Chuan Leekpai was to receive an
action plan to save Asian tigers on December 26, drafted by
some of the more than 600 people who attended a “Year For
The Tiger Seminar” held in Bangkok during the first week of
At the seminar, newly appointed Royal Forestry
Department deputy director-general M.R. Pattarachai
Ratchanee estimated there were still 400-500 tigers left in
Thailand, and blamed Chinese demand for tiger-based traditional
medicines for their disappearance.
The World Wildlife Fund said there were only 250
tigers still in Thailand, presenting a petition bearing 235,779
signatures in favor of stronger protection of Thai tigers and
other endangered species.
Australian zoologist Tony Lynam, 33, presented
hidden-camera photo of tigers he has taken at monitoring points
in the Thai and Indian national parks, and at two oil palm plantations
in Terengganu state, Malaysia––just south of Thailand.
Sponsored by the New York-based Wildlife
Conservation Society, Lynam uses 30 cameras to cover about
16 square miles at a time. The cameras are triggered whenever
an animal passes through an infared (invisible) beam of light.
The highest tiger density Lynam found was 60 within
a 246-square-mile sanctuary in India. India as a whole has as
many as 4,000 tigers, according to official estimates; other
estimates hold that there may be half as many, or fewer.
In one Thai reserve of 80 square miles, Lynam found
just one tiger. He found no tigers at one of the two Malaysian
oil palm plantations he surveyed, but there were several tiger
attacks in the area during the summer of 1998. Lynam did
record a tiger at the other plantation, causing Terrengganu
wildlife and national parks director Ahmad Shamsuddin to pronouce
confidently that the tiger population was up.
As if to underscore Shamsuddin’s claim, a tiger
killed two cows in six days near Pasir Mas, on the Thai border––and,
on December 19, between attacks on cattle,
pounced Mohd Nasharuddin, 10, who was helping his father
Mohd Ghazali Abdullah, 41, to clear land for the Kesedar
Meranto oil palm estate. The father rescued the son, who suffered
wounds requiring 30 stitches, by shouting, waving his
hands, and growling as if he were another tiger.
The incident underscored the real reason for tigers
and humans coming into increasing conflict: economic pressure
pushing people and livestock ever farther into formerly
wild habitat. The Terengganu wildlife and parks department
has killed 21 tigers since 1990, and has trapped five who were
sent to the Malacca Zoo. Terengganu Livestock Breeders
Association treasurer Razak Jusoh told media in September that
this wasn’t good enough, complaining that one cattle breeder
in Hulu Dungan lost 35 cattle to tigers just during the summer.
Vigilante efforts against tigers were reported after the
wildlife and parks department in early September suspended
efforts to catch a tiger who allegedly killed forest products
gatherer Tualang Putik, 40, on August 8.
A different tiger killed woodcutters Jais Long, age
unknown, and Kamaruddin Noh, 46, on June 16 and June 19.
Nicknamed Father Stripes, that tiger was subject of a nationally
publicized hunt until at last he was cornered and killed on
June 26. A necropsy found that Father Stripes may have turned
to human prey because he had been wounded by a poacher.
Though sympathy for Father Stripes was muted in the
Malaysian media by recognition that two impoverished families
had lost their primary breadwinners, Malaysian Nature Society
president Salleh Mohd Nor was given space in The New Straits
T i m e s to demand a crackdown on illegal hunting. Sarawak
state had already announced curbs of hunting privileges, which
took effect on October 1. Terengganu on November 24
strengthened the penalties for persons caught poaching, but has
not yet moved to reduce the numbers of hunters or to restrict
Hunting is illegal in the Thai national parks, but as
Jerry Harmer of Associated Press reported, “For every shot
Lynam’s cameras take of a tiger, bear, deer, or elephant,
there is another of a man, or group of men, walking through
the forest, guns in hand. Some pictures record hunters going
into the jungle in the morning empty-handed, and returning in
the evening with bulging sacks. On a recent trek to collect
cameras, Lynam and team found snare after snare, including
one rigged to fire a rocket-propelled grenade.”
Explaned Lynam to Associated Press writer Don
Pathan, “Some people think eating tiger penis soup gives them
great power. Actually, tigers make love for only 15 seconds at
a time. We should do better.”
There is speculation that the synthetic aphrodisiac
Viagra may have come just in time to save species who may be
hunted chiefly for horns and genitals. Certainly Viagra could
reduce U.S. demand. Importing tiger products violates the
Endangered Species Act, but a recent World Wildlife Fund
survey found alleged tiger bone products at 43% of the shops
selling traditional Chinese medicines in seven major cities.
But tiger bone is used for many purposes beyond
aphrodisiacs. It is especially highly valued as a purported remedy
for arthritis and rheumatism.
“Changing attitudes is proving much tougher than
finding an alternative to tiger bone,” former International
Union for the Conservation of Nature cat specialist group chair
Peter Jackson recently told Gunvanthi Balaram of The Times of
India. “The tiger has such a powerful image that people think
medicines made from tiger parts will not only end their pains
but also make them immortal.”
Jackson’s proposed replacement for tiger bone in pain
treatments wouldn’t satisfy most humane standards, however.
“Preliminary research,” Jackson declared, “shows
that mole-rat bone is as efficacious as tiger bone in the preparation
of Chinese medicines. We hope that this scientific breakthrough
will help curb tiger poaching.”
Ullas Karanth, India program director for the
Wildlife Conservation Society, contradicts the standard theory
that direct poaching pressure is primarily responsible for the
decline of tigers, in Riding The Tiger: Tiger Conservation In
Human Dominated Landscape, published by Oxford
University Press on the eve of the Bangkok conference.
Karanth told Seema Singh of The Times of India that
“Enhancing and monitoring the tiger’s prey base is perhaps the
single most important task facing wildlife managers in Asia.”
Karanth’s tiger population model, explained Singh,
“considers three factors that affect tiger survival: background
mortality, poaching mortality, and prey depletion. Tiger
deaths resulting from natural violence, disease, starvation,
and dispersal into unsuitable habitat are background mortality.”
Some “natural violence” occurs when tigers fight
over limited habitat. More fights occur when prey is scarce and
habitat needs expand as a result. Starvation and dispersal into
unsuitable habitats also result from prey depletion.
Further, Singh wrote, “When the effect of prey
depletion is simulated by the model, the carrying capacity of
breeding females is depressed, cub survival is reduced, and the
tiger population decreases.”
Prey depletion occurs partly because of agricultural
development of habitat, which removes food and cover for
prey; partly because farmers are intolerant of crop damage
caused by prey; and partly because prey species tend to lose
when obliged to compete with cattle for what fodder remains.
Most tragically, tigers who cannot find prey may turn
to humans––especially children. In sparsely populated Nepal,
where an exceptionally severe winter and spring of 1998 made
both wild prey and cattle scarce, one tiger reportedly devoured
50 people in the vicinity of Baitadi, 330 miles west of
Katmandu, just during the first half of the year. Most were
young children who were pounced as they tended remnant yak
herds. The Nepalese, largely devout Buddhists, are known for
their hesitance to kill any animal; many starved last spring
rather than eat their yaks. But in June 1998, authorities grieving
the loss of their children reluctantly condemned the tiger to
Siberian tigers, of whom no more than 350 remain,
are menaced by all the same circumstances––including forest
fires. The fires that roared across much of Indonesia and parts
of Malaysia during 1997 had their counterpart in the SikoteAlin
wildlife reserve, north of Vladovostok, during May and
October 1998. Reserve director Anatoly Astafyev asked the
world conservation community for $1 million in firefighting
aid. The World Wildlife Fund, with an annual budget of $80
million and $94 million in cash and securities in the U.S. alone,
on June 3 announced it would send $20,000.
The WWF tiger conservation strategists, at the time,
were preoccupied with presenting a mid-June “Tiger
Awareness Day” and scientific conference at the San Francisco
Zoo, co-sponsored by the San Francisco-based American
College of Traditional Chinese Medicine. Associated Press
writer Cynthia Chung reported that the conference presenters
urged a switch from use of tiger bone to using bones from
bears, wild pigs, and cattle.
Ultimately, the biggest threat to tigers may be leaders
who just don’t get it––like Yevgeny Nazdratenko, described by
Richard C. Paddock of the Los Angeles Times as “the Sovietstyle
boss of Russia’s Primorsky region.” In March 1998,
Paddock reported, Nazdratenko presented a tiger pelt to
Belarussian president Alexander G. Lukashenko. The tiger was
legally shot by rangers, having allegedly killed two people in
December 1997, but the gift apparently broke several levels of
national and international law.
“Nazdratenko wanted to impress Lukashenko and
demonstrate that he is God almighty in his territory,” said
Russian regional tiger protection program head Vladimir I.
Schetinin. “But the effect was quite different. He only alienated
his own people and triggered a wave of indignation.”