A tiger's scientific name is Panthera tigris. There are several subspecies, though not so many as there used to be, and one is the South China tiger, Panthera tigris amoyensis. It's said to be the “stem tiger,” the one from which other subspecies diverged. (Which doesn't imply that it has stayed unchanged since then.)
Sadly for the South China tiger, Mao Tse-Tung took against it in 1959, called it an enemy of the people, and instituted eradication programs. He didn't like flies or rats, either, but they resisted eradication better than tigers. “Paper tiger” is an old Chinese phrase for something that only looks scary. (Mao famously used it to describe the US and the Soviet Union.) Actually, real tigers never qualified as enemies of the people of China. The threat posed by real tigers was a paper tiger that Mao used as a propaganda device. They made great posters.
By the time the Chinese government, long after Mao, decided to preserve the magnificent South China tiger, they couldn't find any, except in zoos. It was said that a few survived. China had tiger expert Ron Tilson do a survey to tell them how many were left. The answer: zero.
The government also offered a reward for evidence of a wild South China tiger.
Not giving up, China's State Forestry Administration planned a system of tiger preserves. The idea is to set up protected areas, stock them with suitable tiger prey, and then add captive-born South China tigers from zoo stock. Programs were started to teach captive-born cubs hunting skills, one in Fujian province, one in South Africa. (Perhaps you have been told that there are no tigers in Africa. There aren't, except the ones doing junior year abroad.) The plan includes releasing tigers into preserves as part of the 2008 Olympic Games ballyhoo.
Then, last October, exciting news came that, despite Mao (and poachers), there were still wild tigers in South China. Zhou Zhenglong, a farmer and hunter in Shaanxi province, came forth with photos of a tiger in the woods, and of its footprints.
Wow! Press conference! Cash prize for Zhou!
Experts at the Shaanxi Forest Administration Bureau confirmed the pictures were authentic. "[T]he tiger has been found again after more than 20 years." It was inspiring news.
But some people in China's internet community weren't so inspired. They pointed out certain discrepancies. Why did the tiger look so shiny? Why was its pose identical in each photo? Shaanxi officials stood by Zhou and their South China tiger. The internet investigators kept clamoring. Why did the tiger not only look exactly the same in each photo, but also, excuse us, why did it look exactly the same as this tiger poster?
Alas, it turns out that Zhou Zhenglong, that simple farmer, had employed his humble computer graphics skills, an old poster, and a fake tiger foot to produce his pictures and claim the prize. The Shaanxi forestry department backed down.
Ugh! New press conference! Jail for Zhou! Bitter references to paper tigers!
The South China tiger continues not to roam Shaanxi province, wild and free. But there are wild tigers in China. Up in Jilin and Heilongjiang provinces, bordering Russia, a few North China tigers roam. Their subspecies is Panthera tigris altaica, also called the Amur tiger or the Siberian tiger. They are beginning to get protection.
I'd like to see both the North and South China tigers protected. The South China tiger will first have to be reintroduced, a pathbreaking event. Since this zoo-bred population, deriving from few animals, will surely have slightly different bloodlines than the population that used to range South China, I suggest designating it a new subspecies. In honor of its history: Panthera tigris papyrus, the paper tiger.