Infamous tiger photographer to get out of prison

PUBLISHED : Friday, 27 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 27 April, 2012, 12:00am


After spending 2 1/2 years in jail for faking a tiger photograph that set off a series of events undermining the credibility of the central government, Shaanxi farmer Zhou Zhenglong is expected to be released from jail this morning.

Reporters had already gathered at his home in Zhenping county yesterday, and the media were expected outside the prison in Fuping county when he walks free.

Zhou was jailed in May 2010, after being held in police custody for about six months, for forging images of a rare South China tiger believed extinct in the wild since the late 1990s.

But the real scandal went much deeper, as authorities originally defended and played up his claims in 2007 that the photos were real, while sceptics spoke out online, pointing to evidence that the photos were faked.

And the impact still lingers today, according to one analyst.

Dr Long Yongcheng , a leading primatologist and member of the International Primatological Society, said that after the South China tiger scandal, the Ministry of Forestry became reluctant, if not afraid, to announce the discovery of new species.

Last year, photos of a new snub-nosed monkey discovered in Myanmar were taken in Yunnan province, and Long said he urged the government to officially announce the find, to increase public awareness about protecting endangered species. But a press conference scheduled in Kunming earlier this year was cancelled at the last minute due to concerns from Beijing about 'another 'Tiger' Zhou incident'.

'Tiger Zhou was a painful sting for the government, and it still hurts,' Long said.

The saga began in the autumn of 2007, when the former hunter, hoping to cash in, grabbed a poster of the tiger and a couple of cameras. He placed the paper cutout in a forest near his home and snapped away from different angles and distances.

On October 3 of that year, Zhou claimed he had taken 71 photos of a tiger in Zhenping. Nine days later, provincial forestry officials announced the discovery and awarded him 20,000 yuan (HK$24,600).

Government officials immediately leapt on Zhou's purported discovery of a critically endangered species.

Tourism billboards were put up in the county, a press conference was held in Shaanxi and propaganda machines in Beijing glorified the find.

But when the photos reached the internet, they immediately triggered suspicions. Experts and others challenged the authenticity of the images, such as by citing the relative size of tree leaves and the mood of the tiger.

In the end, the most devastating evidence came from an internet user who said the tiger in Zhou's photos looked exactly the same as one on his wall calendar.

More than 16 government officials were penalised over the scandal - some sacked and some demoted - and Zhou was convicted of fraud and illegal possession of firearms.

Luo Dacui, Zhou's wife, told the Huaxi Metropolis Daily in a report yesterday that Zhou was obsessed with the tiger and would not give up trying to prove it was still out there.

'We have been married for 30 years, and I know his mentality. When he comes back, he will probably continue looking for the tiger.'

She admitted that her husband had tried to deceive everyone with his photos, 'but this deception was different from others - different from fake drugs or milk powder.

'We don't blame him for what he has done,' she said.