It seems that the South China Tiger, also known as Amoy tiger (Panthera tigris amoyensis), a subspecies native to south China and one of the world's most endangered cats, may be extinct in the wild.
The Amoy tiger is considered the most primitive form of tiger and it is considered that other forms, like the Siberian tiger, evolved from it. It is considered China's second most important conservation species (the first being the giant panda), but in 2000 there were only 62 South China tigers living in captivity in China, and very few in the wild, compared to the giant panda, with a population of 1,000.
China has promoted a 1.8 million U.S. dollar project to protect this cat, which otherwise will join the list of extinct tiger races: Caspian, the Javanese, and the Balinese tigers, all vanished in half a century. "It's just a matter of time that wild south China tigers will die out," said Wang Xingjin, Director of the Research Center of Guangzhou Zoo.
Wild populations are estimated at between 20 and 30 individuals, in the Guangdong Mountains bordering Hunan and Jiangxi, but numbers are vague at best. A census from 1990 found approximately a
dozen tigers in the 11 reserves sited amongst the mountainous areas of the Guangdong, Hunan and Fujian Provinces of South China.
In 1994, the last known wild South Chinese tiger was shot by poachers in Hunan province. In the last 20 years no tiger has been sighted and evidence came from questionable sources, leaving strong doubts about the tiger's survival. Experts conclude that any South Chinese tiger will most certainly be gone till 2010.
In the range of the Amoy tiger, there are 21 reserves, yet the status of the tigers within them is unknown. As the remaining tigers are very inbred, due to the small number of wild tigers, even if a small wild population remains, it would only take one major epidemic to wipe out the entire group.
In nature, the Amoy tiger is now considered to be 'functionally extinct'. If so, the only remaining Amoy tigers are 68 individuals now living in 18 Chinese zoos, all descending from two males and four females captured in either the 1950s or 1970s, thus providing too little genetic diversity to preserve the species. "If we can't find any wild south China tigers, they will certainly disappear because of the inbreeding," said Huang Zihong, a zoologist.
Scientists began a search for wild tigers in October, but so far they have spotted none. "A program to preserve the fiber cells of the tiger has been begun to clone the tiger using living cells once the technology is mature," said Huang. "Even if the south China tiger becomes extinct, there's still hope we will see the tiger again as long as the genes are preserved," said Wang Xingjin.
The south China tiger is now on the list of the world's 10 most endangered animals. 50 years ago, the population of the South Chinese tiger summed a relatively healthy number of 4,000, but when Mao Tse-Tung came to power, he declared this tiger to be a pest, while the Amur (Siberian) tiger was declared a protected subspecies.
Following this law, South Chinese tigers were hunted to the brink of extinction with over 3,000 tiger skins being handed in during the late 1950s and 1960s. By 1982, wild populations were estimated at a slim 150 - 250 animals, at six years after Mao's death, and "Save the Tiger Program" was introduced.
As rural people still view the tiger as an eater of domestic livestock and a man-eater, enforcing acceptance of the law has been difficult and extensive poaching has continued. The South Chinese tiger was also affected by poisoning, pollution from chemical fertilizers, loss of habitat, and reduction in the number of prey animals. The sub-tropical evergreen areas favored by the South Chinese tiger are now very fragmented with most no larger than 500 square kilometers.
Qiu Yunxing, director of the Meihuashan Nature Reserve Administration, said a 460 hectare park in east China's Fujian Province has been completed for the rare animal to get used to life in the wild. With virgin forests, man-made lakes containing spring water, meadows and other vegetation, the park borders the 20,000 hectare subtropical Meihuashan Nature Reserve in Longyan City of Fujian. The reserve is considered as the best natural habitat for South China tigers because of its favorable climate and sufficient rainfalls and high-quality grassland and wildlife.