Latest proof of rare tiger hurriedly debunked

PUBLISHED : Friday, 28 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 28 March, 2008, 12:00am

It was the South China tiger all over again, except this time it was supposedly spotted in Hunan , captured on video and found to be falsified within days.

Four people involved in the incident, including a government official, are under investigation.

Debate over the re-emergence of the near-extinct tiger subspecies heated up again on March 19 when Wu Hua , a television reporter from Pingjiang county in Hunan, presented a 20-second clip he had filmed purportedly showing a South China tiger roaming through a scenic area called Shiniuzai.

The Hunan forestry department immediately sent a team of experts to Shiniuzai to authenticate the claim and, five days later, announced that the discovery was a fake.

The tiger and the filming were real. But, as the experts and later representatives from the Communist Party's disciplinary committee determined, the tiger was a more common northeastern species 'borrowed' from a circus making a stop at the nearby Shiyan Lake resort.

Shiniuzai and the Shiyan Lake resort are operated by companies owned by the same man, Sheng Jianhua .

A joint investigation team stepped in immediately after experts had concluded that the tiger shown in Mr Wu's footage had to be at least five or six years old, and it would have been impossible for the animal to have gone previously undetected in the area. There was no supporting physical evidence of its presence.

They soon found that the whole scam began with Mr Sheng approaching the county's tourism bureau chief, Tian Gongbing , in February and suggesting a tiger be filmed in the region to boost its appeal to tourists.

Mr Tian agreed and introduced the reporter to Mr Sheng. Party member Ai Hongguang , who was in charge of Shiniuzai, was also privy to the arrangement.

The government concluded the scam had 'seriously cheated the public'. It announced yesterday that Mr Tian would be removed from his position as Pingjiang's tourism bureau chief, that Mr Wu would be dismissed from the TV station, and that Mr Ai had received a party warning.

The incident follows Shaanxi's South China 'tigergate' episode, which also involved a dubious tiger but had a different outcome.

Last October, the Shaanxi forestry bureau unveiled pictures taken by farmer Zhou Zhenglong claiming to show a South China tiger in the local woods. Netizens pounced on the pictures as a hoax but, despite five months of public outcry over the similarity between the photos and a tiger image on a commercial calendar, there has still been no official conclusion as to their authenticity.

The Shaanxi forestry department apologised last month for calling a press conference before it had authenticated Mr Zhou's claim. But the authenticity of the photos was neatly avoided and remains a mystery.