The South China Tiger is the world’s most endangered tiger. It has been listed on the IUCN Red List as Critically Endangered since 1996. As its name suggests, it was formerly found in southern China where it suffered dramatic losses across the past century due to government “pest” eradication efforts, habitat loss and hunting.
After over three decades of extensive surveys seeking any signs of remaining tigers with no success, it is sadly presumed to be extinct in the wild.
The South China Tiger is the most recent tiger subspecies to go extinct in the wild since the Javan tiger disappeared in the 1970s. Today, this tiger subspecies survives only in captivity, mostly in Chinese Zoos.
The South China Tiger is the most ancient of the tiger subspecies, believed to be a relic of the “stem tiger” from which all other tiger subspecies are descended. All 37 living cat species trace back to a panther-like predator that lived in Southeast Asia 11 million years ago. Big cats diverged from this ancestor, splitting the Panthera genus into two groups: the clouded leopards, and the ‘great roaring cats’ including the lion, jaguar, snow leopard, leopard and tiger.
The earliest tiger fossils found in northern China and Java date to around 2 million years old.
In China, the South China Tiger coexisted with humans for more than five centuries as the “The King of the Hundred Beasts”. It held deep political, cultural, artistic, and even cosmological meaning throughout Chinese history, inspiring countless poems, paintings, and stories and is one of the twelve animals of the Chinese Zodiac. According to Chinese myths, five types of tigers balance the energy of the universe, holding us back from tipping into chaos.
A tiger claw amulet is believed to protect the wearer from sudden fright and to impart courage, while babies wear colorfully embroidered tiger shoes to keep them safe. Tiger images adorn the walls of homes and temples to ward off evil spirits, with a white tiger guarding the dead.
China differs from every other tiger range country as the only country to have had four subspecies of tigers within its borders: the now extinct Caspian tiger, the endangered Amur tiger, the endangered Indochinese tiger and the South China Tiger. As such, the South China Tiger is a very special tiger for China not only culturally, but as China’s only endemic tiger species.
The South China tiger’s historical range stretched an expansive 1200 miles east to west, and almost 1000 miles north to south in southern China. Some would occasionally cross the border to more densely populated Hong Kong to hunt wild boar and domestic cattle, occasionally attacking humans before slipping back over the hills. In 1916, the roar of a tiger terrified commuters on Hong Kong’s famous Peak Tram.
With a long history of coexistence in China, the South China tiger maintained a healthy population estimated at 4000 individuals up until the 1950s. It was an explosion in human population combined with Chairman Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward, that sounded the final death knell for the South China tigers. Under Mao’s large-scale “anti-pest” campaign, tigers were hunted down and all but extirpated.
Wildlife and other natural resources became commodities to be fully exploited to serve the economic needs of the State, resulting in deforestation of tiger habitat for human settlements and agriculture. Large numbers of people were repopulated from urban centers to rural locations which further fragmented the tiger’s remaining habitat and increased its vulnerability to conflict with humans, while depleting its prey base.
China banned the hunting of tigers in 1979, giving them full protection under the law, and established several tiger reserves, but it was already too late. By 1996 only 30 to 80 individuals were thought to remain in the wild. An intensive survey conducted between 2000-2001 using hundreds of camera traps in the eight most promising former tiger range reserves found no trace of the South China tigers.
At last count in November 2018 the captive population numbered 178 tigers (88 female, 89 male) distributed across 15 zoos in China and 1 private reserve in South Africa. These tigers are the genetic reservoir for their subspecies and all that now stands between the South China tiger and extinction.
The South China tiger subspecies was first described in 1905 by a German Zoologist Max Hilzheimer, based on 5 tiger specimens that had been collected in what is now the Hubei Province of China. He described the South China tiger as similar in height to the Bengal tiger but with a smaller skull and smaller teeth. It has a lighter, yellowish coat with narrow stripes, and pale paws, face, and abdomen. Genetic analysis of the tiger’s mtDNA confirms that the South China tiger evolved distinctly into a unique subspecies.
The biggest threat to the survival of the South China Tiger subspecies today is inbreeding. The remaining captive tigers are all closely interrelated, derived from just six tigers that were caught from the wild between 1958 and 1970. Their descendants are suffering from a rapid loss of genetic diversity and while their numbers are increasing, they are prone to birth defects and health issues. This lack of genetic diversity poses a severe threat to the future of these ‘reproductively challenged’ tigers.
The second major threat to the South China tiger (and all wild tigers) is demand for their body parts for use in Chinese Traditional Medicine and as luxury goods. Tiger bones and other body parts are used to treat a long list of ailments from skin disease and convulsions to arthritis, malaria, and rheumatism. Today, tiger products are as much in demand in China not only for use in traditional medicine, but for fashion and status.
Tiger pelts, and ‘tiger bone wine’, are luxury high-end products that wealthy businessmen use to show off their wealth and status, and to curry favors by gifting these items as expensive gifts.
China banned the domestic trade in tiger bones and other products in 1993. However, while the trade and consumption of wild tiger parts is illegal, the farming of tigers is still very much legal. Today there are estimated to be over 8000 tigers being farmed commercially within China. The rationale for these tiger farms is to supply tiger parts commercially, while relieving poaching pressure on wild tigers.
However, it is a lucrative, shady business with tiger bone wine selling for up to $500 a bottle. The farming of wild species has been proven many times to increase demand for the wild product, provide cover to launder the legal trade into the illegal markets, and thwart law enforcement efforts.
Some tiger farms in China operate as Safari parks, earning tourist revenue, but behind the scenes sell the tiger parts when the animal dies. Even the act of killing a tiger is up for sale, with buyers able to feast on tiger meat afterwards. These farms, while not only cruel and abusive from an animal-welfare perspective, have absolutely no conservation value. Instead, they pose a threat to tiger conservation everywhere by perpetuating demand for tiger products and driving their poaching in the wild.
An extremely urgent conservation action for the critically endangered South China tiger subspecies is to increase the captive population and their genetic diversity. Only when this population is large enough will it be possible to consider their reintroduction to the wild.
While they are breeding successfully and increasing in total number, they are becoming more inbred with each generation. One strategy to help resolve this issue is to crossbreed with closely related Indochinese tigers from South East Asia. While this will dilute the genetic purity of the subspecies, it may be the only sustainable solution for their survival.
It has worked with success for other critically endangered species with very small inbred populations including the endangered Florida Panther which in the early 1960s was almost driven to extinction, with only around 25 remaining. Today their populations have rebounded to over 200, after being crossbred with closely related Texas cougars.
A healthy, self-sustaining captive South China tiger population is the critical first step to the preservation of what remains of this tiger subspecies. This must first be achieved before their reintroduction to the mountains and forests of south-central China can be considered. Another fundamental obstacle is that the majority of reserves in southern China are too small. The largest is still only big enough to support a few tigers and only then if prey populations can be increased.
But there is hope. As farmers move to urban centers, more land is becoming available to expand the size of wildlife reserves. If South China tigers are introduced to several smaller reserves, these can be managed as ‘meta-populations’ and moved around from reserve to reserve to preserve their genetic diversity. This has worked successfully for smaller, fenced reserves in southern Africa for the management of lions, Critically Endangered African Wild Dogs and other species.
A total of five South China Tigers were transferred to the Laohu Valley Reserve, South Africa in 2003. The idea was to teach them how to hunt in the larger wild spaces of the reserve to see if they could successfully re-wild formerly captive tigers. While the tigers have learnt to hunt, they are still fed with supplementary meat. Up to the end of November 2018, the population had reached eighteen tigers.
It was controversial to take these tigers out of their home country even though the plan is ultimately for their return. It remains to be seen if they will be successfully returned to China. A more realistic hope for a recovery in wild tiger populations within China lies with the endangered Amur tigers in the country’s extreme northeast. This is where conservation efforts are currently focused.
The tiger is embedded in China’s cultural fabric. Without tigers, China will always be incomplete. “Without the breath of the tiger there will be no wind, only clouds, and certainly no rain”, says China’s most ancient text, the I Ching. And yet, it is the demand for tiger products in Traditional Chinese Medicine that has largely driven tigers to extinction despite China’s reverence for tigers historically.
Today, the future of the South China tiger subspecies lies with China and its scientists, zoos, and policymakers. China has the unique ability to harness enormous human and economic resources to achieve conservation goals, as the world has seen with their efforts to protect and restore Giant Panda populations whose numbers are now increasing and are no longer endangered. It is time for the tiger to take a place as important as the Panda in China’s environmental policy and within its national pride. It is China’s action or inaction that will largely determine the fate of their last wild tigers.
Where to See South China Tigers in the Wild
As they are extinct in the wild, it is not possible to see a South China tiger today other than in captivity. You can visit Zoos that support tiger survival in the wild. For example, the Cincinnati Zoo is helping to protect the critically endangered Malayan tiger, and the Amur tiger is being bred as part of the Tiger Species Survival Plan at the Bronx Zoo, the Buffalo Zoo and other AZA accredited institutions.
What is another common name for the South China tiger?
The South China tiger is also known as the Amoy tiger or the Xiamen tiger.
How many South China tigers remain in the wild?
Zero. The South China Tiger is the world’s most endangered tiger as is now extinct in the wild. They survive only in captivity, mostly in Zoos in China.
What is the major threat to the South China Tiger?
Inbreeding. The remaining captive South China tigers are all closely interrelated, derived from just six tigers that were caught from the wild between 1958 and 1970. Their descendants are suffering from a rapid loss of genetic diversity and while their numbers are increasing, they are prone to birth defects and health issues.
What is the closest wild relative of the South China tiger?
The closest living relative of the South China tiger is the Indochinese tiger. This is important as it may hold the key to the future survival of the South China tiger subspecies. The captive South China tiger population’s genetics can be supplemented with those of the closely related Indochinese tigers, to improve their viability.
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