Now critically endangered in all their habitats, from India to Siberia, tigers are extinct in Hong Kong. Until about 90 years ago, however, the South China tiger (Felis tigris amoyensis) was commonplace enough for regular, verifiable sightings to occur in parts of the New Territories.

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Tigers can easily walk 60km within a few nights, and would generally enter the New Territories from remote, wild mountainous country behind Bias Bay (now Daya Bay), roam for a while around Tai Mo Shan and the Kowloon hills to prey on livestock from isolated villages, and then return from whence they came.

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In 1915, a marauding tiger was shot near Sheung Shui by police superintendent Donald Burlingham, but not before it had mauled to death a European police sergeant and two Indian constables. The same tiger was reported to have visited both Hong Kong Island and Lantau at around that time. Tigers are strong swimmers, and the narrow sea crossings from the mainland New Territories could easily have been conquered by a healthy adult.

Other authenticated sightings were recorded throughout the 1920s. As late as November 1934, a tiger carried off a sizeable pig from Lo Wai, a then-remote village near Tsuen Wan; parts of its carcass were subsequently found. Some weeks later, an elderly Hakka woman, cutting grass for fuel on a remote hillside, was circled by a large tiger. She managed to drive it off with her carrying pole, but was hysterical from shock when police arrived to interview her.

A tiger was shot by police in Stanley village in early 1942. Believed to be a circus animal released when the Japanese invaded several weeks earlier, its pelt was donated to Stanley’s Tin Hau Temple, where it can still be seen.

Hong Kong’s last definitively recorded tiger visitation occurred in November 1947, when Anglican Bishop R. O. Hall reported that “a large cat, probably a tiger” had walked across his hillside garden in Sha Tin. Scale drawings “of a pug mark, some six inches in diameter” were produced as evidence.

Evidence for the earlier presence of tigers can be found in place names. In the lower Kowloon foothills, just below Lion Rock, a small hamlet populated by subsistence farmers and occasional quarrymen was known for generations as Lo Fu Ngam – “tiger’s cliff”. Government survey maps and CLP, on the electricity substation between Lok Fu and Kowloon City, still use this name.

In the late 1940s, as the Chinese civil war erupted, thousands of refugees made their way into Hong Kong. Many initially lived in flimsily erected squatter huts illegally constructed in locations below Lion Rock, such as Lo Fu Ngam, which were later cleared for early public housing resettlement estates.

Unfortunately, the pre-existing place name was inauspicious; tigers are fearsome creatures, and living at “tiger’s cliff” sounded neither pleasant nor propitious. To get around this cultural issue, the Resettlement Department, which in those years was responsible for emergent public estates, renamed the area Lok Fu – “happy and rich”. In Cantonese, subtle intonation changes can create an entirely different subset of meanings; in consequence, a place that previously sounded scary and forbidding was now – at least in principle – cheery and welcoming.

Many early residents were desperate escapees from the “people’s paradise” then being created in China, who had voted with their feet in the middle of the night and arrived in Hong Kong with little more than what they could carry, and creating the psychological sense that they were now living somewhere safe was important.

For more on Hong Kong history and heritage, go to scmp.com/topics/old-hong-kong