Endangered species photo fuels 'Tigergate'
Allegations of faked tiger picture stir emotions over decline of China's wildlife.
By Craig Simons
Sunday, January 20, 2008
BEIJING For conservationists, the news was exceptional. Chinese officials announced last fall that at least one South China tiger, a species not seen in the wild for more than 20 years, still roamed the country's forests.
But almost as soon as the forestry department of China's central Shaanxi province released photographs of the animal, the story began to unravel.
People posting to Internet chat rooms pointed out that the tiger looked identical to one in a popular Chinese New Year poster and could have been digitally added to the photographs. Journalists argued that a tiger was unlikely to sit still for 20 minutes, the time the local government says that a farmer took to shoot 40 digital images of the animal.
A panel of prominent zoologists, photographers and criminal detectives convened by a Chinese Web site analyzed the images and declared them fake. Among other clues, they pointed out that the tiger holds the same posture in every photo, grass around its feet is undisturbed and its eyes reflect no light.
Instead of offering hope that China is improving conservation efforts, the incident dubbed "Tigergate" by China's media has highlighted how economic development often trumps environmental protection.
China's pollution, population growth and development have had "a huge impact on wildlife," said Hu Huijian, a professor at the South China Institute of Endangered Animals in Guangzhou. "There's not much true wilderness left."
In China, 83 species of mammals, 86 bird species and 60 kinds of fish are on the verge of extinction, according to the World Conservation Union, a network of hundreds of government and nonprofit groups.
The plight of the South China tiger one of six remaining tiger subspecies worldwide is typical. Experts think the South China tiger is "functionally extinct" because there are too few wild animals to reproduce.
Conservationists argue that Shaanxi officials might have put economic gain ahead of environmental protection by staging the photographs to attract financing.
"Some people think local officials wanted money from the central government to set up a nature reserve," said Xu Hongfa, China director of Traffic, a nonprofit group that works to curb the trade of endangered animals.
Shaanxi forestry officials said a hunter took the photographs in October and have defended the images as genuine. But other Chinese authorities have backed away.
An editorial in the People's Daily, the Communist Party newspaper, accused Shaanxi officials of "being too anxious to announce the authenticity of the photographs" and "seeking material benefits."
In the 1800s, wild tigers lived in much of China. But as China's population has surged and its economy has grown roughly sevenfold since the 1980s, the tigers' habitat has been squeezed and fragmented.
Hunting has also been a problem. In the 1950s, when scientists estimated the South China tiger population at over 4,000, the Communist government preached a mantra of controlling nature and rewarded farmers for killing tigers because they sometimes attacked livestock.
Beijing outlawed hunting tigers in 1979, but demand for tiger parts in traditional Chinese medicines has fueled poaching.
If the photos are confirmed fake, some conservationists said the debate still has done some good by raising interest in saving the dozens of Amur tigers living along China's border with Russia and a small population of Bengal tigers in Yunnan province.
"There are some real tigers, so there is a possibility that China can recover their wild tiger populations," said Mahendra Shrestha, director of the Washington D.C.-based Save the Tiger Fund.
(Note: Re-posted with additional information from the original posted: "Story of Rare Tiger Sighting Unravels")
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