South China Tiger

The South China tiger was a population of the Panthera tigris tigris subspecies that is native to southern China. I say was, because it is almost certain that there are no individuals left in the wild (and they have not been recorded since the 1980s.

The population mainly inhabited the Fujian, Guangdong, Hunan and Jiangxi provinces. It has been listed as Critically Endangered on the China’s Red List of Vertebrates. Even in the late 1990s continued survival was considered unlikely because of low prey density, widespread habitat degradation and fragmentation, and other environmental issues in China. In the fur trade, it used to be called Amoy tiger. It is generally considered to be the closest remaining tiger to the original tiger from which all the sub-species split.

As late as the 1950s, there was estimated 4000 remaining in the wild, but a campaign by the government to remove pests. Along with habitat loss, this reduced the population to around 150-200 by the 1980s. In 2007, both a cow and a bear was killed,  and bore signs that it was a tiger. This is the last concrete evidence of the South China tiger.

This leaves the captive population. In March 1986, 17 Chinese zoos kept 40 pure-bred South China tigers in their collections, including 23 males and 14 females. All were third or fourth generation descendants of one wild tigress from Fujian and five tigers from Guizhou. This is not many to rebuild a population. By 2005, the captive population of South China tigers consisted of 57 individuals that showed signs of inbreeding, including reduced genetic diversity and a low rate of successful breeding. In 2007, the global captive population consisted of 72 individuals; there are few captive South China tigers outside China. 

Unfortunately, in the past zoos were bad at keeping sub-species separate. Generally they can interbreed, though they often loose features that would help them survive in the wild. One example would be moving a Sumatran tiger to Northern Russia; despite being the same species one is substantially bigger than the other, fur is different lengths and the differences continue. More importantly, not only would a Sumatran tiger probably die fast in the far east of Russia, but an Amur tiger would probably do no better in the steamy forests of Sumatra.

Few seem to be “pure” South China tigers as there is genetic evidence of cross-breeding with other subspecies. In 2019 there were an estimated 150 South China tigers in captivity within China. 144 of these were part of the breeding and management program maintained by the Chinese Association of Zoological Gardens since 1994, five were in Guizhou province, and one was in Fujian province. China’s captive South China tigers have been entered onto a centrally registered studbook. Before the studbook was established it was thought that this captive population was too small and lacking in genetic diversity for any re-population program to be successful, but since the start of the central register more and more South China tigers have been identified in zoos across China.

The word “rewilding” was coined by conservationist and ex-carnivore manager of Pilanesberg National Park, Gus Van Dyk in 2003. Van Dyk, who in an effort to find the most appropriate translation of the Chinese term “Yě-huà” (Chinese: 野化), chose to adopt the term “rewilding” to describe Save China’s Tigers rewilding project of the South China tiger. Since then, the term “rewilding” has been widely used by wildlife organisations worldwide.

One cub was born in this private reserve  in November 2007, the first to be born outside China. Since then, a number of cubs have been produced. As of 2016, the Laohu Valley Reserve had 19 individuals. 

The organisation Save China’s Tigers, working with the Wildlife Research Center of the State Forestry Administration of China and the Chinese Tigers South Africa Trust, secured an agreement on the reintroduction of Chinese tigers into the wild. The agreement, which was signed in Beijing on 26 November 2002, calls for the establishment of a Chinese tiger conservation model through the creation of a pilot reserve in China where indigenous wildlife, including the South China tiger, will be reintroduced. Save China’s Tigers aims to rewild the critically endangered South China tiger by bringing a few captive-bred individuals to a private reserve in the Free State province of South Africa for rehabilitation training so that they can regain their hunting instincts. At the same time, a pilot reserve is being set up in China. Once it is ready, the offspring of the trained tigers will be released there, while the original animals will stay in South Africa to continue breeding. The reason South Africa was chosen is because it is able to provide expertise and resources, land and prey for the South China tigers. The South China tigers of the project have since been successfully rewilded and are fully capable of hunting and surviving on their own. This project has also been very successful in the breeding of these rewilded South China tigers and 14 cubs have been born in the project, of which 11 survived. These second generation cubs would be able to learn their survival skills from their successfully rewilded mothers directly. It was hoped that in 2012 the second-generation tigers born at Laohu Valley Reserve could be released into the wild.

Work is still ongoing, though no reserve has yet been formed. We can only encourage and pray that this changes. For the foreseeable future, the only South China tigers in the wild, will live in South Africa. 

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