With so few, if any, left in the wild, South China tigers will not likely survive the next few decades. However, Siberian tigers once faced imminent extinction and are now seemingly on their way toward recovery. Is it too late to save the South China tiger?
Probably. According to the World Wildlife Federation (WWF), "the South China subspecies was estimated to number 4,000 in the early 1950s. But following decades of extermination as a pest, the subspecies has now not been sighted in the wild for more than 25 years, and is believed by many scientists to be 'functionally extinct.'"
That remains true even after October 3, 2007, when a Shaanxi Province farmer produced a photograph purporting to be that of a wild South China tiger. It turned out to be fraudulent. There have been no confirmed sightings since 1964. With two dozen or fewer remaining, however, the sub-species may be beyond the point of recovery.
What is a South China Tiger?
The South China or South Chinese tiger (Panthera tigris amoyensis) is often considered "the ancestor of all tigers," says the WWF. It is also called the Amoy tiger or the Xiamen tiger. South China tigers, along with Malayan and Sumatran tigers, comprise the smaller tiger sub-species. Males average 330 lbs. and 8 1/2 feet long, while females average 240 lbs. and 7 1/2 feet long. Like all tigers, South China tigers have retractable claws, padded feet, strong jaws, and large canines. Their tails are nearly three feet long.
These tigers are orange to reddish-orange in color, with black striations spaced further apart than their relatives. Its underside is white.
South China tigers typically reach maturity around age four. Litters produce two to four cubs. Captive tigers may live for 20 years.
Where Do South China Tigers Live?
Although possibly extinct in the wild, some experts believe this tiger still lives in southeast China. Per the WWF, the "few remaining individuals of this tiger are found in montane sub-tropical evergreen forest close to provincial borders. The habitat is highly fragmented, with most blocks smaller than 500 km²." If anywhere, these tigers would reside in the Chinese provinces of Hunan and Jiangxi or neighboring provinces.
What Do South China Tigers Eat?
South China tigers, like their brethren, are carnivores. Their diet consists of large mammals mostly, including various species of deer, wild boar, gaur, buffalo, and livestock. They are nocturnal hunters and can eat many pounds of prey in one meal.
Why are South China Tigers Endangered?
Due to attacks on humans and consumption of livestock, South China tigers were hunted and nearly wiped out as a form of pest control. Per the WWF, approximately 3,000 South China tigers were killed in the 30 years preceding China's hunting ban in 1979. Despite the ban, the population was estimated at less than 100 individuals by 1996.
All tiger sub-species have been hunted since ancient times. Says the WWF, "tigers are poisoned, shot, trapped and snared, and the majority of these animals are sought to meet the demands of a continuing illegal wildlife trade - which includes traditional Chinese medicine."
Although China set up reserves to protect a sub-species that may no longer be present within them, they likely cannot sustain tigers and certainly will not lead to their recovery. The WWF claims that "even if a few individuals or small populations remain, no existing protected areas or habitat are sufficiently large, healthy or undisturbed enough to sustain viable tiger populations."
What can be Done to Protect South China Tigers?
At this point, little can be done to preserve wild South China tigers. The noble organization, Save China's Tigers, has introduced zoo-born South China tigers into the South African wild. Called "rewilding," the tigers are trained to hunt and to survive in the wild, the goal being to eventually reintroduce self-sustaining animals to their former habitats.
Perhaps it is not too late to save the sub-species in captivity. With less than 70 captive South China tigers, all in China, the sub-species' survival is doubtful. According to Leon Marshall, journalist for National Geographic News, the "64 captive tigers in China are all descendants of six wild animals seized in 1956. Inbreeding is a major problem. Compared to their wild ancestors, the tigers in captivity are smaller, weaker, and more prone to disease."
Marshall's article, "Chinese Tigers Learn Hunting, Survival Skills in Africa," reports that "male tigers in captivity have low sperm counts and show little interest in the females—a sure path to extinction." Birth defects are prevalent, and newborns have a lower survival rate. "Pollution and a diet containing food additives have contributed to about half the old tigers dying of cancers."
Some are fighting for the South China tiger's survival. Their success seems unlikely; conservationists might only be delaying the inevitable. Perhaps all that can be done is to watch and learn from humanity's mistakes as the sub-species draws its final breaths.