Story of rare tiger sighting unravels

Story of rare tiger sighting unravels
Cox News Service
Posted on Wed, Jan. 16, 2008
BEIJING — For conservationists, the news was exceptional. Chinese officials announced in the fall that at least one South China tiger, a species not seen in the wild for more than 20 years, still roamed the country’s forests.
But almost as soon as the forestry department of China’s central Shaanxi province released photographs of the animal, the story began to unravel.
People posting to Internet chat rooms pointed out that the tiger looked identical to one in a popular Chinese New Year poster and could have been digitally added to the photographs.
Journalists said a tiger is unlikely to sit still for 20 minutes, the time the local government says a farmer took to shoot 40 digital images of the animal.
A panel of prominent zoologists, photographers and criminal detectives convened by a Chinese Web site analyzed the images and declared them fake. Among other clues, they pointed out that the tiger holds the same posture in every photograph, grass around its footprints is undisturbed and its eyes reflect no light.
Instead of offering hope that China is improving conservation efforts, the incident — dubbed Tigergate by China’s media — has highlighted how economic development often trumps environmental protection.
Experts believe that the South China tiger is “functionally extinct” because there are too few wild animals to reproduce. Conservationists say Shaanxi officials may have put economic gain ahead of environmental protection by staging the photographs to attract funding.
“Some people think local officials wanted money from the central government to set up a nature reserve,” said Xu Hongfa, China director of Traffic, a nonprofit group that works to curb the trade of endangered animals.
Shaanxi forestry officials have defended the images as genuine.


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