Friday, December 21, 2007

Tiger, Tiger?

One day in October, Zhou Zhenglong, a 52-year-old hunter in the mountains of Shaanxi Province in central China, was astonished to find himself face to face with a South China Tiger. He risked his life to take a photo of it, or so he claimed to reporters and government officials.

It is a remarkable photo, but more remarkable still is the furor it has raised. The photo quickly reached the hands of the province's Forest Bureau, whose excited director held a press conference to publicize the photo. It surprised everyone: the South China Tiger was critically endangered; most believe it is now extinct in the wild. Zhou himself had spent a year guiding scientists in the vain search for tigers in the forests.

But as the Chinese adage has it: flies don't cling to uncracked eggs. As quickly as people across China learned about the photo they decried it as a fake. A poster publisher even claims, "It is my tiger!" He says the tiger is taken directly from a Chinese New Year poster that he had printed in July 2002. A respected botanist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing dismisses the photo as having a false tiger image imposed on a real plant image, probably a photo of a photo set in the forest. For two months since, the entirety of China has been arguing about the photo's validity.

Zhou and his province's Forest Bureau maintain its authenticity, and I have no special insight into what is true. (This particular photo looks suspicious to my human eye, but then, Zhou possesses over 70 of others that I haven't seen.) It is remarkable that such a small photo, hoax or not, could raise so much interest. There is lots of talk on Chinese blogs and probably most of those talking have never even thought about the South China Tiger before this incident. To have such intense interest in such a small thing – why, it looks like China is really catching up to the US.

The latest update: China's National Forest Bureau has ordered the Shaanxi Province Forest Bureau to "scientifically appraise" Zhou's tiger photos. "The public finally feels relief," commented People's Daily.

This quick move of a national bureau is a bit odd, matching itself to the oddly engaged public. But investing in a harmless subject is harmless, I guess.

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