Clock ticks for South China tigers in symbolic year

Fri Feb 12, 2010 2:08am EST
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By James Pomfret

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.