Extinction of South China tiger

April 12, 2023, 5:35 p.m.

In the provinces of South China, there once roamed a unique subspecies of tiger. The South China tiger (Panthera tigris amoyensis) is ecologically, morphologically, and genetically different from other tigers.

But, unfortunately, you will no longer find one of these tigers in the wild.

The South China tiger Panthera tigris amoyensis is the rarest of the five living tiger subspecies, the most critically threatened and the closest to extinction.

The South China Tiger is the world’s most endangered tiger. As its name suggests, it was formerly found in southern China where it suffered dramatic losses across the past century due to government “pest” eradication efforts, habitat loss and hunting.

After over three decades of extensive surveys seeking any signs of remaining tigers with no success, it is sadly presumed to be extinct in the wild.

The South China Tiger is the most recent tiger subspecies to go extinct in the wild since the Javan tiger disappeared in the 1970s. Today, this tiger subspecies survives only in captivity, mostly in Chinese Zoos.

The South China Tiger is the most ancient of the tiger subspecies, believed to be a relic of the “stem tiger” from which all other tiger subspecies are descended. All 37 living cat species trace back to a panther-like predator that lived in Southeast Asia 11 million years ago. Big cats diverged from this ancestor, splitting the Panthera genus into two groups: the clouded leopards, and the ‘great roaring cats’ including the lion, jaguar, snow leopard, leopard and tiger.

The earliest tiger fossils found in northern China and Java date to around 2 million years old.

In China, the South China Tiger coexisted with humans for more than five centuries as the “The King of the Hundred Beasts”. It held deep political, cultural, artistic, and even cosmological meaning throughout Chinese history, inspiring countless poems, paintings, and stories and is one of the twelve animals of the Chinese Zodiac. According to Chinese myths, five types of tigers balance the energy of the universe, holding us back from tipping into chaos.

The South China tiger is considered functionally extinct. This means there aren’t enough tigers left in the wild for a sustainable population, making the captive population very valuable. It is important to identify and maintain the South China tiger in captivity if, someday, South China tigers are to be reintroduced into the wild.

The captive population of about 50 tigers, derived from six wild-caught founders, is genetically impoverished with low reproductive output. Given the size and fragmentation of potential tiger habitat, saving what remains of the captive population may be the only option left to prevent extinction of this tiger subspecies, and even this option is becoming increasingly less probable. This precarious dilemma demands that conservation priorities be re-evaluated and action taken immediately to decide if recovery of the wild population will be possible.

Habitat loss have led to the collapse of the wild population. They haven’t been seen in the wild in over many decades.

The biggest threat to the survival of the South China Tiger subspecies today is inbreeding. The remaining captive tigers are all closely interrelated, derived from just six tigers that were caught from the wild between 1958 and 1970. Their descendants are suffering from a rapid loss of genetic diversity and while their numbers are increasing, they are prone to birth defects and health issues. This lack of genetic diversity poses a severe threat to the future of these ‘reproductively challenged’ tigers.

The second major threat to the South China tiger (and all wild tigers) is demand for their body parts for use in Chinese Traditional Medicine and as luxury goods. Tiger bones and other body parts are used to treat a long list of ailments from skin disease and convulsions to arthritis, malaria, and rheumatism. Today, tiger products are as much in demand in China not only for use in traditional medicine, but for fashion and status.

Tiger pelts, and ‘tiger bone wine’, are luxury high-end products that wealthy businessmen use to show off their wealth and status, and to curry favors by gifting these items as expensive gifts.

Some tiger farms in China operate as Safari parks, earning tourist revenue, but behind the scenes sell the tiger parts when the animal dies. Even the act of killing a tiger is up for sale, with buyers able to feast on tiger meat afterwards. These farms, while not only cruel and abusive from an animal-welfare perspective, have absolutely no conservation value. Instead, they pose a threat to tiger conservation everywhere by perpetuating demand for tiger products and driving their poaching in the wild.

What do you think should be done today to ensure the survival of a unique felid species?

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