By Wu Zhong, China Editor
HONG KONG – The South China tiger, Panthera tigris amoyensis, has not been seen in the wild since 1980. But recently the extremely endangered, if not already extinct, species has drawn wide attention from the public and media in China.
The attention comes not because the big cat has been seen, but because of repeated scandals which have arisen from efforts to “prove” the tigers’ existence in the wild with forged photographs or video tapes.
The first of such scandals came in October, 2007, when Zhou Zhenglong, a farmer and amateur photographer in Zhengping county in the northwestern Chinese province of Shaanxi, claimed he had risked his life to shoot 30-plus digital photographs of a South China tiger in the wild. (A tiger grabs China by the tail by Kent Ewing, Asia Times Online, December 8, 2007)
Senior officials with the Shaanxi Provincial Forestry Bureau immediately threw their weight behind the authenticity of Zhou’s snapshots. They rushed to hold a press conference to announce the “re-discovery” of the big cat under their jurisdiction.
However, the photographs were soon questioned. Netizens doubted the pictures and claimed they were fake. Even the tiger in the pictures was suspected of having been copycatted from cardboard paintings. The furor became so intense that the term “paper tiger” – originally from chairman Mao Zedong’s well-known quotation that US imperialists and all reactionaries are nothing but paper tigers – has been given a new meaning: forgery.
Urged by the public and wildlife experts, the national Forestry Ministry formed an investigation team on October 24, but their report has remained unpublicized.
But in early February, the Shaanxi provincial government reprimanded the forestry bureau for violating official regulations by holding the press conference to support Zhou’s “discovery” without further evidence.
On February 4, the Shaanxi Forestry Bureau issued a public letter saying sorry for publicizing the photos, though it refrained from commenting about their authenticity. “We didn’t have a spot investigation before we held the press conference,” the letter said. “We curtly released the discovery of the South China tiger without substantial proof, which reflects our blundering manner and lax discipline.”
Once the farce of the “paper tiger” in Shaanxi subsided another scandal involving a fake South China tiger was exposed. And this time, the one who did the forgery was a journalist.
On March 19, the state-run Xinhua News Agency reported that Wu Hua, a reporter with the Pingjiang county TV station in Hunan province, had announced that he had “unintentionally videotaped” a suspected South China tiger in Shiniuzai in Pingjiang.
Some local officials immediately jumped to support the claims. The next day, led by Wu, some officials from Hunan provincial and Yueyang municipal forestry authorities paid an inspection tour to the site where the tiger was allegedly videotaped. They concluded that “what Wu Hua has snapped is factual”. Pingjiang county is under the jurisdiction of Yueyang municipality.
But just four days later, on March 24, the provincial forestry bureau, after a further investigation, announced that the big cat Wu filmed was in fact a Siberian tiger “borrowed” from a circus from Anhui province, which happened to be on a performance tour in Hunan.
Wu was subsequently blamed for making the forgery to enhance his own fame.
It’s true that anyone who proves the existence of a South China tiger in the wild will become famous overnight. And the fame could also bring fortune to the rediscoverer. Had Zhou’s photos or Wu’s videos proved true, they would have had much potential commercial value. Clearly, it was fame and money that lured than into making the risky forgeries.
It was for the same reasons, it could be said, that local officials immediately threw their weight behind the forgeries.
Since the South China Tiger is such a popular and endangered species, if one is proven to exist in a specific place, the place will no doubt immediately be declared a national protected area with special funds allocated by the state annually. Normally, places inhabited by wild animals are poor, remote mountainous areas, and special funds could mean a lot for the local economies. After all, protection of the giant panda has boosted many relevant local economies.
What seems puzzling, however, is how such scandals could ever come one after another in such a short period. A possible explanation may be that the lack of punishment on those involved in the forgery in Shaanxi’s case virtually encouraged Wu to take his chance.
In Shaanxi’s case, because Zhou Zhenglong is a farmer and not subject to any administrative discipline, authorities may not be able to do anything to him for the counterfeit; it could hardly be considered a criminal offense. Without the underwriting of Shaanxi forestry officials, Zhou’s picture would have been left to debate. So, at least these officials should have been held accountable.
Since Wu is a journalist, what he has done violates the moral code of journalism and he must be dealt with seriously. If he is left unpunished, it would deliver the message that authorities tolerate fake news stories. Authorities must also launch a through investigation into whether local officials were involved in Wu’s forgery.
According to Yueyang media, the local government has invested tens of millions of yuan in recent years to turn Shiniuzai into a scenic site, in hope of attracting tourists. However, the business operation has not been so good and the local authorities have even asked the Anhui circus for a performance tour to boost local tourism. Logically, Shiniuzai would have benefited a lot from Wu’s forged discovery had it not been exposed.
With the repeated fake news, the South China tiger has already become the proverbial wolf in the children’s story The Boy Who Cried Wolf. And if Wu and those local officials who are proved to be involved get away easily, it is likely that more wolf cries involving South China tigers or some other endangered animal will be exposed soon.
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