Is that really a rare cat or are officials riding a tiger?
Was it the rediscovery of a rare tiger species, or an illusion created by a digitally composed 'flat cat'?
The controversy surrounding a Shaanxi hunter's photo of a South China tiger has escalated into an international debate with the publication of the image yesterday in the United States' influential Science magazine.
Headlined 'Flat cat?', Science said the image had excited tiger researchers around the world, but netizens on the mainland had already declared it a 'paper tiger'.
Tiger expert Gary Koehler, a Washington state research scientist, was quoted as saying: 'It's tremendously exciting news, if it can be substantiated.'
The excitement started on October 12 when the Shaanxi Forestry Department called a press conference to announce the comeback of the South China tiger based on two photos authenticated by a number of experts. The species has not been seen in the area for decades and is so rare that it is listed as one of the world's 10 most endangered animals.
The department said Zhou Zhenglong , a 52-year-old former farmer, borrowed two cameras and snapped 71 film and digital photos of the tiger on October 3.
But jubilation at the find was soon drowned out by waves of scepticism and accusations of negligence.
Netizens questioned the authenticity of the image, highlighting the tiger's tame expression, its unnatural colour and proportions to its surroundings.
Critics also pointed out discrepancies in the only two photos released by Mr Zhou and the officials.
Mr Zhou probably did not expect to find himself embroiled in such a media mess when he set out to take the pictures.
'At first when I was told to photograph the tiger, they say I'd be rewarded with 1 million yuan. But I've only received 20,000 yuan, and am accused of faking the photo,' Mr Zhou was quoted by Southern Weekly as saying.
As a result of the public outcry, Mr Zhou took his photos to the State Forestry Administration in Beijing late last month, but the administration has so far avoided commenting on the authenticity of the photos.
State Forestry Administration spokesman Cao Qingyao said on Thursday that a team of experts would be sent to Zhenping county to carry out a careful survey.
China University of Political Science and Law doctoral student Hao Jingsong who launched a legal claim against Mr Zhou on Wednesday, has also filed an administrative complaint requesting that the State Forestry Administration authenticate the photos again and discipline the Shaanxi and local governments for dereliction of duty.
'The local government probably wanted to do some marketing to attract investment, and the provincial government wanted to build a wildlife reserve; but now they are 'finding it difficult to leap off a tiger after mounting it',' Mr Hao said.
A Shaanxi Forestry Department official said on his blog that he regretted not buying more photos from Mr Zhou, who had demanded an unacceptably high price for the lot.