When Chinese officials declared this fall that a rare South China tiger had been photographed in the wild, it appeared at first to be a story of nature’s powers of survival.
But now the officials are defending the photos against claims that they are obvious fakes.
The controversy began in October, when China’s official Xinhua news agency reported that a farmer had handed in photos he took of a tiger in a forest near his house in Shaanxi province.
The South China tiger is critically endangered, and has not been spotted in the wild since 1964.
Experts believe that if there are any of the animals left in their natural habitat, they number fewer than 30.
But the photo released by Xinhua — reportedly one of more than 70 the farmer took — was quickly derided by scientists and laypeople from around the world who said the image appeared to be digitally altered.
On an Internet site, one critic posted photos showing similarities between the farmer’s image and one from a previously published calendar.
Even the China Photographers Society deemed the farmer’s photo a hoax.
While clearly embarrassed by the attention, Chinese officials have stuck by their story.
Early this month, they announced that they had organized a group of experts to search for tigers in Shaanxi.
“Whether the tiger on the photo is real or not, it’s still difficult to evaluate the situation of the tigers at large in the area,” a forestry official told Xinhua, China’s state-sponsored news outlet.
Meanwhile, a group in South Africa is attempting to breed captive South China tigers with the hope of reintroducing them to their native habitat.
Last month, Save China’s Tiger claimed the first birth of a South China tiger cub ever achieved in captivity outside China.
“The goal is not just to save a few endangered tigers but to save a Chinese culture symbol,” said Li Quan, the group’s director.
Only about 60 of the tigers survive in captivity.
“Row over China tiger photo ‘fakes'”
BBC News, December 5, 2007
“Rare Chinese tiger fights for survival … in South Africa”
Agence France-Presse, December 6, 2007
“Government officials refuse to accept South China tiger photos are fake”
Xinhua (People’s Republic of China), December 4, 2007