THE South China Tiger was discovered by the American naturalist Harry Caldwell in the early 19th century in Xiamen, Fujian Province, and was named the “Xiamen Tiger.” In 1905, the German animal taxonomist Max Hilzheimer determined the subspecies status of the South China Tiger based on five tiger skull specimens from Hankou.
The tiger is a symbol of Chinese traditional culture. The earliest tiger statues in China appeared in the Neolithic Age, which is about 7,000 years ago. The tiger-shaped token symbolizes power, and terms like “roaring dragons and tigers” and “dragons rising and tigers leaping” are metaphors for extraordinary vitality.
The South China tiger is one of China’s top 10 endangered animals and national first-grade protected animals, being listed in 1981 as an endangered species in the appendix I list of CITES (the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora – also known as the Washington Convention), and was included in the red list of critically endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in 2012.
Habits and Characteristics
The tiger mainly lives in tropical rain forests and evergreen broad-leaved forests in southern China. It used to live in the vast mountainous areas of China from the Shandong Peninsula to the south, mainly in Hunan, Guangdong, Jiangxi, and Fujian provinces. Footprints indicating the tiger’s presence have also been found in Shaanxi, Sichuan, Henan, Hubei, and Zhejiang provinces.
The tiger has a round head, short ears, thick and powerful limbs, a long tail, and streaks on its head. Its hair color is deep, the chest and abdomen are mainly milky white, while the whole body is orange and covered with black stripes. There are short and narrow stripes on the fur. The spacing of the stripes is larger than that of the Bengal Tiger and the Siberian Tiger. Rhombic patterns often appear on the side of the body. There is a thick volar pad on the tiger’s foot, making it quiet when walking. Among the various subspecies of the tiger, the South China tiger is smaller in size, second only to the Sumatran Tiger. The adult male tiger is about 2.5 meters long from head to tail and weighs nearly 150 kg. The female tiger is smaller, about 2.3 meters long and weighs nearly 110 kg.
The tiger has no fixed habitat and likes to stay alone. The adult is strong and agile, with sharp claws, acute sense of smell, and a good swimmer. Because of its strength it is able to kill a variety of prey on its own, so has no need to hunt in groups. Being nocturnal, the tigers rest during the day, but when on the move, like to prowl on the mountain trails, often clawing on the side of the path, and urinating on the claw marks to mark their territory, which serves to keep other large carnivores away. As a carnivore, it feeds on hoofed animals such as wild boars, deer, and wild goats. In the event of a severe shortage of food, the tiger will attack people and enter the farmlands to hunt livestock. Tigers generally have a fixed hunting route spread over an area of about 100-200 square kilometers.
Legend has it that South China tigers like to live in deep grass. When the tiger rests, the thick tail often swings left and right leaving distinctive patterns in the grass, along with a grass nest from where it rolls around to get comfortable.
Reproduction and Protection
South China tigers breed throughout the year, but female tigers are generally in estrus during spring. Tigers have a life span of 20 to 25 years and begin to mature at 2 years of age. The female tigers’ mating call is loud scream, and the male tiger responds with a singing roar. The mating pair will play together and copulate frequently during this period. After the estrus period, the male tiger leaves the female, who remains in the territory to give birth and rear the cubs. The term of pregnancy is 100 days, and the average number of cubs born is between two and four. Before giving birth, the female will choose a lair in a cave or thick shrubs on high ground which is inaccessible, to act as protection from rain and other predators.
After the cubs are born, the coat color changes from grayish yellow to light yellow, before gradually deepening to the rich orange and black. Cubs open their eyes after about two weeks and leave the lair after one month. The female, during the cubs feeding period, will not venture out for food and will attack other animals that enter its safe space. Once considered threatened, the tigress will lead the cubs to a safer place.
After six months cubs are weaned and have mastered the basic ability to hunt and kill. For about two years, the young tiger weighs about 40 to 50 kilograms before entering adulthood after which the mother and the offspring will live in different territories. The lone habits of the tigers have made monitoring these creatures difficult. A large number of incidents of tiger attacks were recorded in the 1950s and 1960s. At that time, China’s population grew sharply, and much of the mountain forests and wetlands were transformed into farmland. As their living space shrank, tigers frequently foraged for food in the farmlands, prompting a nationwide campaign to eliminate the tigers. This resulted in thousands of tigers being killed across the country. In 1979, the Chinese government issued a ban on hunting tigers, which by then had become a rare sight in the wild.
According to a survey conducted in the 1990s, researchers estimated there were only 20 to 30 wild South China tigers in the mountains of southern China. Today, the possibility of seeing a wild South China tiger is very small. At present, the number of captive South China tigers in the world is only about 200, and all of them are the offspring of six wild South China tigers captured in the 1950s. The genes are single and the population is difficult to rejuvenate.
There are currently four protection zones for the rare animal species in Jiangxi, Guangdong, Hunan, and Fujian provinces of China. In Meihua Mountain, Fujian Province, since the establishment of the protection zone in 1998, more than 20 South China tigers have been bred, and a wilderness stocking area of the South China tiger has been established. Decades later, these tigers may finally be able to return to the mountains.
JIANG FUMEI is a Beijing-based freelancer.