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HONG KONG (Reuters Life!) - In the rugged hills of southern China, conservationists are battling to save the critically endangered South China tiger, an initiative given extra impetus as Chinese celebrate the Year of the Tiger.
Once widespread across China, even roaming down to densely populated areas like Hong Kong into the 1940s, South China tigers have been steadily decimated by mass deforestation, poaching and "anti-pest" campaigns instigated by Chairman Mao Zedong from the 1950s to rid the countryside of the cattle-raiding "vermin."
While sporadic sightings, including hoaxes, are reported in the mountainous borderlands of China's rapidly developing provinces of Guangdong, Fujian and Jiangxi, none have been seen or captured in the wild for the past 30 years or so.
All that remain are around 90 captive specimens, derived from just six wild-caught founders in the 1950s. The last of their kind, these tigers have nevertheless suffered from low genetic diversity, dismal caged conditions and a tainted lineage from hybridization with other tiger subspecies.
"The tigers have blood ties with each other," said Chen Daqing, director of the Suzhou South China Tiger conservation base in eastern China which has 14 tigers under its care.
"So such inbreeding has greatly interfered with the natural reproduction and growth of the South China tiger. This has led to a low breeding rate and also a higher death rate of their fetus."
While the situation remains dire for the only indigenous tiger subspecies in China, some hope the new lunar year, the Year of the Tiger, will spur fresh conservation initiatives and government funding.
Plans are afoot to establish a 160 square km (16,000 hectare) fenced reserve in southern China's Jiangxi province, where tigers can roam and hunt in a natural, yet controlled environment -- with the ultimate aim of full introduction into the wild.
But sources familiar with the project say bureaucratic red-tape and internal politics within China's State Forestry Administration (SFA) that have stymied approval and funding from Beijing, compounded by the tricky task of relocating thousands of villagers from their area.
Wang Weisheng, the SFA's director of conservation, wouldn't comment when contacted by Reuters for clarification of the project's status or when it might be approved.
Besides its ecological role as a predator, the South China tiger has been historically revered as a Chinese cultural symbol, yet tiger conservation initiatives have never enjoyed much state support, a far cry from the abundant funding and reserves devoted to the iconic giant panda, experts say.
Save China's Tigers, a conservation group which breeds a small batch of tigers in a South African game reserve, is hoping some of its cubs can soon be "rewilded" from the African bush to the misty, bamboo-clad hills of their homeland.
"We don't want to miss this significant year to show that tigers can return back to China," said Li Quan, the head of the group which has successfully bred five tiger cubs from the two pairs they first took to South Africa in 2003.
For now, the precarious state of the species means every birth or death tips the scale toward survival or extinction.
Quan, who lost a healthy male cub to a predatory bird last December, wrote of the ordeal in a recent book.
"This is one of the worst fears I hold and in fact I often have nightmares about this," she wrote in the "South China Tiger Diaries": "The number of South China tigers is too small for us to take such total risks of losing them to natural hazards."
(Additional reporting by Royston Chan in Shanghai)
Editing by Miral Fahmy