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Last Updated: Wednesday, 5 December 2007, 13:06 GMT
Row over China tiger photo 'fakes'
By Michael Bristow
BBC News, Beijing

Two South China tigers in a reserve in Fujian Province, China (File photo)
There are believed to be no more than 30 wild South China tigers
Photographs supposedly showing a rare South China tiger in the wild have sparked a controversy that at times has bordered on the farcical.

The saga has involved Chinese wildlife experts, government officials, internet users and an influential US magazine.

They have all been drawn into a row over whether the sub-species of tiger still exists in the wilds of China's Shaanxi province.

To resolve the debate, the Chinese government has now dispatched a team of experts to search for more evidence.

The drama began in October when Chinese farmer Zhou Zhenglong supposedly snapped the tiger in the forested mountains of Zhenping County.

According to state news reports, Mr Zhou took 71 photographs on two cameras, one digital, the other using film.


Only one shot was publicly released, but it was immediately hailed as proof that the South China Tiger is not extinct in the wild.

That claim was given credence when the US magazine Science published the photograph and an accompanying article about the row.

Other media organisations, including the BBC, also reported the story.

But critics were almost as quick off the mark, suggesting the photograph had been digitally altered and was a fake.

It did not help matters that farmer Zhou, a former hunter, was reported to be asking for 500,000 yuan ($68,000, 33,000) for the photographs.

'Flourescent' fur

Debate raged over the internet as both experts and laymen pointed out flaws in the photograph, which shows a tiger crouched in green undergrowth.

The more knowledgeable talked about how tigers are solitary, vigilant animals that are notoriously difficult to spot, let along photograph, in the wild.

Others could not believe the tiger's fluorescent-looking fur belonged to a real animal.

Whether the tiger on the photo is real or not, it's still difficult to evaluate the situation of the tigers at large in the area
Cao Qingyao
State Forestry Administration

One internet user even posted a picture on the web showing the similarities between the Shaanxi tiger and one on a New Year calendar that hung in his home.

The debate seemed to be resolved when the China Photographers Society joined the growing band of doubters and declared the picture fake.

But some Chinese government officials are still clinging to the possibility that the photographs are real.

At a press conference, State Forestry Administration spokesman Cao Qingyao said an investigation had been launched to settle the matter.

A 10-strong team will scour an area covering 200,000 hectares searching for black bears, leopards and, of course, the South China Tiger.

Mr Cao said he was keeping an open mind about what they would find, according to state media.

"Whether the tiger on the photo is real or not, it's still difficult to evaluate the situation of the tigers at large in the area," he said.

Mythical creature?

The last wild South China tiger sighting in the country was recorded in 1964, and if they do still exist in the wild experts say their numbers do not exceed 30.

There are only about 60 in captivity, including one born in a wildlife reserve in South Africa last month - the first to be born outside China.

But the tiger debate has now become more than just a row about the survival of one of the world's most endangered animals.

It has become a discussion about conserving China's wildlife in the face of rampant economic development, and about telling the truth.

For some, it also appears to be about creating a myth.

One Shaanxi forestry official recently mentioned the tiger in the same breath as Scotland's Loch Ness Monster.

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