Is the South China tiger extinct in the wild?

A 10-month survey seeking evidence of the survival of South China tigers in the wild has resulted in divergent opinions. The Chinese State Forestry Administration, which organised the survey, has declared that some tigers survive in the mountains of South China. But Ronald Tilson, a leading American tiger specialist who led the survey, believes the South China tiger is extinct in the wild, although he concedes that a few individuals may exist, without their being a viable population.

The report of the Forestry Administration said that there are small populations of tigers in four isolated habitats. No tigers were sighted during the survey, it says, but faeces, hairs, footprints and remains of kills provided evidence of tiger survival.

The survey covered eight provinces - Jiangxi, Zhejiang, Fujian, Guangdong, Hunan, Hubei, Guizhou and Chongqing. A Central Group of Technology, headed by Dr Hu Defu was responsible for guiding and monitoring the survey. Tilson, with a another American biologist, Jeff Muntifering, carried out the survey with Chinese forestry staff from the central and provincial governments.

Map of present distribution of Chinese tigers

According to the Forestry Administration report, the evidence collected, together with previous information, indicated that the potential distribution area of the tiger covers six mountain ranges in a "W" pattern (see map). Five regions could be identified from the information gained:

  1. Eastern region: Wuyi Mts, Xianxialing Mts and Yandangshan Mts, which extend to Baishanzu Reserve, Zhejiang province and Meihuashan Reserve, Fujian province. Baishanzu Reserve and its surroundings area covers 620 km2; and the area of Meihuashan Reserve and surroundings is 730 km2. The area of Qingliu and surroundings is 380 km2.
  2. Western region: Xuefeng Mts and Wuling Mts, mainly in Hupingshan Reserve and Taoyuan Reserve. The whole area is a northeastern extension of Yunnan and Guizhou Plateau. The Huping Mts Reserve and surroundings cover 640 km2, and the Taoyuan Reserve and surroundings cover up to 460 km2.
  3. Middle region: the Yihuang Reserve and surrounding areas Le'an, Chongren and Ningdu hills in Jiangxi province cover 1,200 km2 , and is an extension of Wuyi Mts to the northeast. The Mang Mts Reserve and surroundings in Mang Mts cover 2,480 km2.
  4. Southern region: Nanling Mts of north Guangdong province centralised in Yuebei Reserve cover 1,650 km2.
  5. Northern region: where Dabashan Mts and Wushan Mts meet in Shennongjia Reserve, Hubei province. Tiger information there remains to be confirmed.

However, the report said there was no evidence so far to demonstrate that an eco-corridor exists between the regions.

The survey showed that tiger habitats were mainly from the middle to the top of mountains, where shrubs and secondary shrubs grow, with tall grass at the mountain tops and relatively abundant wildlife, including wild pig (Sus scrofa), muntjac (Muntiacus muntjac) and hares (Lepus capensis.). The human population, which populates the valleys, has decreased, due to migration to the prospering eastern provinces, leading to an increase in tiger prey species, which could "basically satisfy the need of the tiger, by and large".

Noting that tiger attacks on livstock are rare, the report speculates that this is due to large-scale hunting pressure in the 1950s and 1960s, which compelled tigers to change their behaviour so that they avoid people or act extremely cautiously, and rarely attack domestic animals. Tigers had become wanderers and no longer maintained stable territories because of human disturbance, fragmented habitats and low prey density.

"The change in behavioural characteristics of the tiger, formed in the recent 50 years, can be considered as an adaptation of the tiger to changes of natural and social environments, which causes difficulties in the investigation and study of the tiger population and increases the difficulties in saving and protecting the tiger."

The report said the following measures had been taken in South China tiger range:

  1. In Shanghang county and its surroundings in Fujian province, the national Meihuashan Reserve and South China Tiger breeding center has been established;
  2. In Yihuang, Le'an and Ningdou counties of Jiangxi province, a South China Tiger Reserve was established in 1999;
  3. In Qingyuan county and surroundings of Zhejiang province, a National Baishanzu Reserve was set up;
  4. In Shimen county of Hunan province, a National Hupingshan Reserve has been established. In addition, Wuyunjie Reserve in Taoyuan and Anhua counties has been established at the provincial level;
  5. In Dadongshan-Babaoshan region of Guangdong province, Yuebei Nature Reserve has been established.

In addition, local governments are carrying publicity for wildlife conservation which promotes local residents' awareness.

The report said that there had been no tiger hunting cases since 1980s, but tigers had sometimes been disturbed by people collecting plants and illegally hunting tiger prey.

Tilson's view

In a press release from Minnesota Zoo, where he is Director of Conservation, Tilson: declared: "It would be impossible to say every single South China tiger is gone. There may be single tigers or a scattered few still alive, but we have concluded that there is no viable population left".

Tilson quoted Wang Weisheng, Deputy Director of the State Forestry Administration, as saying: "The population of wild South China tigers certainly is scarce, but we have no reason to believe the subspecies extinct. We have different facts, and the problem is how to interpret them".

Tilson and Muntifering spent seven months in summer and autumn 2001 with Chinese field staff, visiting eight nature reserves with the highest likelihood of still supporting South China tigers: Qing Liu and Meihua Mts National Reserve in Fujian Province; Yihunag and Le'an provincial reserves in Jiangxi Province; Baishanzu National Reserve in Zhejiang Province; and Huping Mts, Wuyunjie and Mang Mts National Reserves in Hunan Province.

The press release said they spent more than 1,100 man-hours inspecting 300 km of rugged, remote mountain trails and ridges in the reserves and nearby wild areas to check recent reports and evidence of tigers, to look for tiger prey, such as wild pigs and deer, to assess habitat, and evaluate the degree of logging, settlement and other human disturbance. They interviewed more than 30 local villagers to document sightings of predators and prey, to evaluate livestock management practices, local land use, and conservation attitudes. Phototraps were set up in Yihuang South China Tiger Reserve and Hupingshan National Reserve, for 269 and 123 trap nights, respectively.

"By the end of the year, we had seen no tigers, not one," said Tilson. "More surprising, we uncovered no recent physical evidence that provided incontrovertible proof of tigers. With only a few exceptions we found little in the way of animals that tigers could eat".

To date, no wild South China tiger photos have been taken, the press release said, although photos of sambar deer (Cervus unicolor) wild pig (Sus scrofa), golden pheasant (Chrysolophus pictus), cape hare (Lepus capensis), tufted deer (Elaphodus cephalophus) and leopard cat (Felis bengalensis) were taken in the camera trap surveys.

"More importantly, remote camera surveys helped paint a clear, undeniable picture of the current state of reserve management in southern China by recording human/domestic stock presence nine times more frequently than wildlife," Tilson said.

Huping Mts National Reserve, Hunan, although producing no verified wild South China tiger traces, reflected the most promising habitat and conservation area for South China tiger recovery. Remote camera traps are currently still deployed there.

Tilson said that only a small amount of land that was suitable for tigers was seen, and of the eight reserves declared potential refuges for South China tiger by the Forestry Administration, nearly all suffered from heavy human settlement along the borders; heavy human use and traffic inside the reserve; unregulated use of resources, such as bamboo; and a scarcity of prey. Free-ranging goats or cows fed inside the reserves, and there were few recent reports that any had been killed by predators.

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