The Peculiar History of Wild Tigers in Hong Kong
Though Hong Kong is famous for being an urban jungle, much of this city used to be a jungle filled with wildlife. Chatteris’ own Brian Lau shares his insights on the peculiar history of wild tigers in Hong Kong.
In the spirit of Chatteris’ Environment Month, I’d like to shine the spotlight on Hong Kong’s wonderful history, particularly that of wild tigers!
In 1911, The Hong Kong Telegraph published a short column detailing a tiger that swam out to Stanley and feasted on cattle. There was another report of a tiger in 1916 whose roar terrified commuters on the Peak Tram. Furthermore, in 1937, witnesses claimed to see an abnormally big cat eating a woman whole, leaving just her blood stains on the mountainside.
20th Century Hong Kong was a very different place compared to modern times. Instead of the concrete jungle that we are all too familiar with, imagine a blanket of dense forests and flatlands across the New Territories where rural villages and wild animals were very commonly seen.
Believe it or not, Hong Kong was once home to the legendary South China Tiger, a Critically Endangered species that is now believed to be extinct in the wild.
Tigers were surprisingly not a common sight during Hong Kong’s period as a British colony. However, the handful of sightings by villagers and British policemen have proved the deadly reputation of this apex predator.
These tigers would often prey on pigs, chickens, cattle, and occasionally humans. Despite a plethora of police testimonies and eyewitness accounts of tiger sightings, Hong Kong’s tigers never made it into our local history books. Why?
There are a few potential reasons for this. American researcher Chris Coggins explains that Hong Kong’s South China tigers can disappear into the dense forests just as quickly as they appear. There could be as many as five sightings in a particular district for a month, followed by complete radio silence for the rest of the year. It’s important to note that tigers are predators who rely on stealth and stalking to track down their prey. Tigers would also prefer to hunt smaller wild animals, instead of big chunky humans, as it is their desired source of food.
Another reason would be prejudice. When the British settled in Hong Kong in the early 20th Century they did not expect to find tigers to exist in the territory. Contrary to the locals, the British often stayed behind closed doors and went to bed early, long before these big cats came out to hunt. As such, stories about tigers terrorising rural villages were usually ignored amongst high-ranking British officers and consuls, despite repeated reports of sightings and killings by local villagers.
Perhaps the most well-known account of tigers in Hong Kong goes to the “Sheung Shui” tiger. This particular story took place over 100 years ago in 1915, when a tiger reportedly mauled two British policemen following reports of sightings by local villagers in Sheung Shui. Constable Ruttan Singh was killed on site by the tiger, whilst his colleague Ernest Goucher suffered critical injuries which led to his death three days later. Reinforcements later subdued and killed the tiger, with the head stuffed and mounted at Central Police Station for nearly 60 years. Today you can find the famed tiger head at the Police Museum (27 Coombe Road, The Peak)! You can also visit Ernest Goucher’s grave at Happy Valley Cemetery. His final words read: “Gone but not forgotten”.
Tigers were deadly. Contrary to the British opinion, local villagers were very much aware of the threat tigers posed to their lifestyle. As such, they knew exactly how to defend themselves against these animals. They often guarded their livestock with poles and firecrackers. Children were expected to stay indoors after sundown. Doors were locked shut at night. A good word of advice amongst villagers at the time was to run downhill in order to evade the angry tiger.
Tiger sightings continued all the way until the late 1960s. Coggins claims that the latest credible accounts of a tiger sighting come from 1965. The account records British police and Gurkha units patrolling the Shing Mun Reservoir, trying to track down the dangerous tiger as claimed by local villagers. Now, fellow reader, you might be asking: But Brian, if tigers were seen roughly 60 years ago, why can’t we see any now?
Allow me to direct your attention to the year 1958, which just so happens to be the year that Mao Zedong initiated the Great Leap Forward. One of the first actions taken in this campaign was called the Four Pests campaign, in which Mao declared war against the “pests” responsible for transmitting disease. Throughout this campaign party loyalists formed themselves into tiger brigades, slaughtering as many tigers as they could track down throughout China. South China Tigers were seen as highly valuable goods to these brigades. A famed beast in Chinese mythology, people believed that by ingesting the tiger’s various body parts they could gain immense strength and vigour. With the wild population estimated to be around 4000 before the Great Leap Forward, scientists estimated that only 150-200 South China tigers remained in the wild in 1982. This meant that Hong Kong’s tigers were most likely escapees from Mao’s brutal ecological war, or simply individuals who found their way to this wonderful city.
Tigers won’t be coming back to Hong Kong, at least not their wild counterparts. Despite their violent reputation, it’s a shame to witness such magnificent animals hunted down for political and medical purposes. They are widely believed to be currently extinct in the wild since no sightings of the tiger have been recorded since the 1980s. In the late 1990s, the continued survival of South China Tigers in Hong Kong was considered to be highly unlikely due to the rapid urbanisation of the New Territories as well as the degradation of local habitat reserves.
However, there is still hope for this famed beast. If you’re keen to see a South China Tiger for yourself, there are tigers currently in captivity residing within zoos in major cities around mainland China. In 2019, Henan province’s Wangcheng Park Zoo reported that six South China Tiger cubs were born! Shanghai Zoo has bred over 100 South China cubs since 1958. Despite China’s monumental efforts to keep this precious species alive, there is still a lot more to be done. Today’s South China Tigers are descended from only 6 individuals caught in the 1950s. The constant reproduction with close relatives has brought forth a loss of valuable genetic diversity, exposing future generations to the risk of permanent reduction in health.
But have faith! Other species have survived these genetic bottlenecks. For example, the cheetah survived a population reduction of a similar calibre nearly 10,000 years ago. Save China’s Tigers is an international charitable foundation dedicated solely to the revival of the South China Tiger species. Ever since its establishment in 2000, its rigorous breeding program has seen notable success. With a combination of a healthy diet and living in a government-protected natural environment, there are over 100 healthy tigers now living in their private nature reserve.
I’m confident that China’s efforts will not go in vain. Let’s hope for a future where these tigers can once again prowl in the wild.
Or will they challenge the concrete jungle again? We’ll see………
Interested in knowing more about Hong Kong’s history with tigers? Here are some wonderful resources to get you started!
John Saeki: The Last Tigers of Hong Kong: True Stories of Big Cats That Stalked the Hills Beyond the City (2022)
Chris Coggins: The Tiger and the Pangolin: Nature, Culture, and Conservation in China (2002)
Zolima City Mag: Hong Kong’s Wild Creatures, Part II: Tigers (2020)
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