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    Greater China
     Dec 8, 2007
A tiger grabs China by the tail
By Kent Ewing

HONG KONG - What do the South China tiger and the Loch Ness Monster have in common? According to a rising chorus of jeers in mainland China, neither one exists - photographs to the contrary.

But, whereas there has been no recent sighting of "Nessie" in the Scottish loch from which the mythical monster takes its name, a series of apparently fake photographs of the South China tiger, allegedly taken last October by a farmer in north-central Shaanxi province, has sparked national outrage.

Interestingly, it is China's ever-expanding hoi polloi of Internet

users who have led the charge, followed by scientists, wildlife experts and professional photographers. One Netizen, mindful of past American scandals, has dubbed the attempted ruse "Tigergate".

The 40 digital photographs of the rare animal were allegedly snapped by Zhou Zhenglong of Zhenping County in a forest near his home. If authentic, these photos would represent the first sighting of the South China tiger since 1964. Experts say only 20 to 30 such tigers remain in the wild, while around 60 live in captivity. According to the World Conservation Union, up to 4,000 tigers roamed the forests of southern and central China in the 1950s, but as their habitat disappeared, so did they, and the animal is now considered by many conservationists functionally extinct in the wild.

The South China tiger, regarded as the ancestor of all tigers, is one of six remaining tiger subspecies. Three other subspecies - the Bali, Java and Caspian tigers - were all wiped out in the 1940s. Thus the alleged sighting in Shaanxi is a big deal for provincial authorities. If local officials can prove that tigers still stalk Shaanxi, they stand to rake in a windfall in state funding to protect the animal and to attract tourism and related businesses. As for the farmer-photographer, he, of course, would like to sell his pictures to the highest bidder.

Here's the rub: Two months after the photographs were taken, it seems patently clear to everyone except Shaanxi's easily (willingly?) duped forestry bureau that they are completely fraudulent. Indeed, the fraud appears so amateurish that it has prompted a mounting cyber attack on the photographer for his unmitigated gall, as well as jibes at Shaanxi and central government officials for refusing to admit the obvious.

This fierce criticism has been bolstered by professional opinion. For example, the Beijing News reported this week that the China Photography Association dismissed the photographs as fakes. A group of digital specialists, biologists and animal experts enlisted by the association found that two of the shots were exactly the same and that others appeared to be have been lifted from wildlife calendars. In addition, the eyes of the tiger do not reflect light in a normal way, animal experts pointed out.

But that testimony was not convincing enough for Shaanxi forestry officials, who have refused to concede that the photos are fake. Their stubbornness has, in turn, led to an Internet clamor for the central government to step in and do something about this increasingly embarrassing act of fraud. Further angering the Netizen hordes, however, the State Forestry Administration (SFA)has shied away from getting involved - which is curious since provincial forestry bureaus come under the supervision of the SFA.

At a press conference this week, SFA spokesman Cao Qingyao danced around the issue, suggesting that it did not fall under the administration's purview. "We cannot make a judgment which is beyond our responsibility," Cao said, adding: "We believe the provincial government and forestry bureau will take the public's skepticism scientifically and seriously."

Cao did announce, however, that the SFA has dispatched a team "of 10 experts in tigers and large feline animals" to Zhenping to carry out a field investigation. But, he said, the team is waiting for the county's first snowfall to begin because that will supposedly make the tawny coat of the tigers easier to spot.

Notably absent from the press conference was SFA director Jia Zhibang, who is a native of Shaanxi and served as the province's governor prior to assuming his present position in 2005. Jia had a more important meeting to attend, Cao said.

Jia's deputy, Zhu Lieke, concluded the briefing by taking the debate to another, more abstract level. He asked reporters if they had visited the Loch Ness Monster Museum in the Scottish highlands, saying: "There are a lot of photographs of the Loch Ness Monster in the museum. People care about the existence of the monster rather than the authenticity of the photos."

That may be true in Scotland, but in China it is clear that a rising army of Netizens wants to see Tigergate exposed. More than 80% of those polled by a popular Chinese Internet portal Netease.com voted for an investigation into the scandal to prevent their tax money from being misused to prop up dishonest local officials. And thus Tigergate has tapped into the national outrage over rampant corruption and shameless mendacity at the local level. It has also demonstrated, once again, the insuppressible power of the Internet in a country of 1.3 billion people whose leaders are paranoid about free expression and, despite their pre-Olympic pledges, determined to muzzle the media.

According to another popular Chinese Internet portal Sohu.com, Internet users in China now number between 150 million and 200 million. If this estimate is correct, then China probably has more people logging on every day than the United States, where Nielsen Netratings show 154 million users. Moreover, Sohu.com research shows that Chinese users stay online a lot longer (1.765 billion hours a week) than their US counterparts (129 million hours a week).

Add to that a China Internet Network Information Center report showing the nation's Internet user rate growing 18% annually, a figure that is undoubtedly low because the center's survey was conducted by calling fixed-line phones in a country whose younger generation has gone mobile. Whether this rapidly growing army of users is shopping online or flaming officialdom with derision about Tigergate or something else, it is clearly a force to be reckoned with, and Beijing had better start paying attention.

Finally, there is some good news for the South China tiger - but it comes from South Africa. Last month, on the Laohu Valley Reserve in central Free State province, a male tiger cub, weighing a healthy 1.2kg, was born to a mother named Cathay and a father called Tiger Woods. The tiger's birth, the first outside China, is part of a "rewilding" program aimed at teaching captive tigers how to fend for themselves.

Tigers are not native to Africa, but Cathay, Tiger Woods and baby seem happy enough to have made the move.

Kent Ewing is a teacher and writer at Hong Kong International School. He can be reached at kewing@hkis.edu.hk.

(Copyright 2007 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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