Wildlife & Biodiversity

‘Hong Kong’s lost tigers show us a species once gone, cannot return’

Down To Earth speaks to journalist John Saeki about his upcoming book on the lost tigers of Hong Kong

By Rajat Ghai
Published: Friday 11 September 2020

A South China Tiger. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Hong Kong is usually viewed as a concrete jungle where the administration has to build vertical constructions for housing due to paucity of land. At one time though, there were actually forests in the area.

Wild tigers roamed them and often killed people. British journalist John Saeki, who lived in Hong Kong for a long time, is now writing a book on these tigers, who are now lost forever, although their memories linger among locals. Down To Earth spoke to Saeki about his project. Edited excerpts:

Rajat Ghai: What made you think of writing a book on the tigers of Hong Kong?

John Saeki: As an expat living in Hong Kong, I learned about the two famous tigers of the territory early on. These are the 1915 Shang Shui tiger and the 1942 Stanley tiger. Like most people who hear those stories, I assumed that they must have been the last tigers of Hong Kong.

Then, I read an article that quoted Geoffrey Herklots, the man who set up the first biology department at Hong Kong University in 1928. Herkots said tigers had visited Hong Kong most years. He made this statement in a speech in 1932 and he again wrote it in a book he published after World War II in 1952. It jolted me and got me interested.

I loved the idea so much that I included a tiger in my fictional novel The Tiger Hunters of Tai O, published by Blacksmith Books in 2017. It was a made-up story featuring a made-up tiger appearance in Hong Kong in 1957.

The following year, I realised I couldn’t leave it at that. So, I started researching the topic and soon realised there was enough material for a non-fiction book. I was especially encouraged to do this when most people whom I told about the tiger research were surprised and fascinated by my findings.

They included people who knew Hong Kong well and also knew a lot about present-day wildlife in the territory and yet knew very little about the frequent appearances of tigers in the first half of the 20th century.

RG: How are you collecting data for the project? Please describe.

JS: The backbone of my research comes from newspaper archives stretching back to 1900. It was possible to do this through the online archives of the Hong Kong library and through the South China Morning Post.

In these articles, I found a trove of stories throughout the first half of the century that built up a picture of regular tiger appearances in the territory. The reports were just as often treated sceptically by the editors of the day, but collectively, there is a convincing consistency that documented regular tiger encounters by the people of Hong Kong. They slow down in the fifties and the most recent credible reports are from the mid-1960s, even though there was no conclusive proof of the last tiger.

This fits with the timeline of the South China tiger (Panthera tigris amoyensis) that was abundant in the first half of the 20th century and then dropped in population catastrophically in the 1950s, when it came under systematic persecution.

Geoffrey Herklots also left several good accounts of Hong Kong tiger appearances in the Hong Kong Naturalist magazine that he established and edited throughout the 1930s. He was the most authoritative person on the territory’s natural history and he had no difficulty believing the claims of the people who reported sightings. He wrote of tiger accounts in his 1952 book The Hong Kong Countryside: “Most that I have investigated have been founded on fact.”

For general information about the South China tiger, there is an invaluable record in the book The Tiger and the Pangolin by Chris Coggins of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, Massachusetts, in the United States. He met some of the last tiger hunters of the region and researched 2,000 years of official archives on human-tiger encounters. I spoke to him last year and he filled me in a bit on the background about the species. 

American Methodist missionary Harry Caldwell also left a fantastic record of the South China tiger in his book Blue Tiger. His son John also recounted tiger tales in his memoirs China Coast Family. 

RG: Are there people from the generation (when tigers were still found in Hong Kong) still around? How are you tracing them?

JS: There are still people in Hong Kong — and those who emigrated — who have personal memories of tiger encounters. I have managed to make contact with a few, though I feel there are more people out there.

Unfortunately, I don’t speak Cantonese. Hence, I normally have to go through intermediaries to communicate with these people, as most tiger sightings were reported by Cantonese speakers.

Two of my friends have parents with their own tiger stories, so they helped to get things started. Other than that, there has been some media interest in the project and that, in turn, has triggered more people to get in touch. 

I am certain that I have only seen the tip of the iceberg and there are more stories out there. The first edition of the book won’t have as many personal records as I had hoped.

Unfortunately, I had to leave Hong Kong earlier this year before I had finished the first draft of the book and therefore missed some potential meetings with those who had stories to tell. I am hoping that the publication itself would help to trigger more memories and there might be scope for a second edition that adds to the personal stories.

RG: Tell me more about Harry R Caldwell, the American Methodist missionary in southern China who hunted tigers. 

JS: Harry Caldwell was a fascinating character. He arrived in South China in the early 20th century with a Bible and a gun. His main aim was to convert people to his brand of American Christianity, to bring them out of what he saw as a dark world of superstition.

The gun was just a hobby at first, for big game. But he quickly discovered that killing a tiger, especially a man-eater, had the effect of bringing lots of converts to the Church. So he became a renowned tiger hunter and in the process, became one of the world’s experts on the South China tiger.

He wrote a book with wonderful descriptions of tiger behaviour that he earned by spending hours sitting in tiger lairs, waiting for the right moment to pull the trigger. Harry went on to become a negotiator between warlords and local authorities.

By the time of the Japanese invasion of China in the 1930s, he had swapped his gun for a movie camera and had started to work on documenting the elusive subspecies in its natural environment. Unfortunately, his films were destroyed in the chaos of war before he left China for good. 

Some people think that Caldwell bears some responsibility for the demise of the South China tiger. Not so much for the 48 direct kills attributed to him, but more for his success in breaking through local superstitions and convincing people that the animal was no supernatural being and simple patience and good weaponry could defeat it.

I think it is difficult to judge that. Even Herklots in 1952 did not show any inkling of the population crash that was about to hit the South China tiger.

RG: What does the disappearance of the South China tiger from Hong Kong tell us about the People’s Republic of China (PRC)’s wildlife policies in its infancy?

JS: In the 1950s, the PRC faced existential crises at home and abroad. Outside of China, they were on their own where a fierce American-led anti-Communist movement waged war in the region. At home, they battled underdevelopment and poverty after years of civil war and occupation.

They saw a need to expand farmland, improve productivity, fatten up the population and strengthen their forces. In China’s southern provinces of Fujian, Hunan, Jiangxi and Guangdong, the tiger was seen as a hindrance to this developmental plan.

As farmland expanded, tigers came more into conflict with people, hundreds of whom were being eaten. Some kind of management plan was needed. And reflecting the mood of the era, the PRC’s official plan was to wage war against the species. 

Today, this seems shocking. But again, I think it is difficult to judge. It was an era where British royals, for example, travelled to India to shoot tigers from the backs of elephants, for sport. There was generally less knowledge about the precious resources of our natural environment.

I think it is fair to say that the leadership of China had no idea of the  environmental disasters that were to hit the planet in the coming decades. But I don’t think many other people had much idea either in the 1950s.

RG: What was the attitude of the colonial British authorities in Hong Kong towards the tigers?

JS: As far as I can tell, the colonial British authorities in Hong Kong were largely ignorant of the frequency of tiger visits to the colony. The visits were fleeting and difficult to witness.

You had to spend a lot of time up in the hills, tending to cattle for example, to have a good chance to see the exotic visitor and funnily enough, that wasn’t what many of the representatives of British authorities tended to do.

I think there was a certain amount of prejudice in the sense that tigers were not expected in Hong Kong, but instead belonged to the grand landscape of a place like India. I believe that prejudice is reflected in the often skeptical tones of the newspaper reports and a tendency to discount the statements of local villagers, unless their stories were corroborated by one of their own. 

Even in Xiamen, much closer to the heart of South China tiger country, a British consul was sceptical when Harry Caldwell approached him for advice on how to shoot a tiger. The Consul had served in India and for that reason, Caldwell believed he would be able provide some useful advice.

Instead of giving any advice, the Consul laughed at the suggestion there were any tigers in that part of the world. Caldwell later proved him wrong by bringing the carcass of his first successful tiger shoot to display in the town.

RG: Is there a possibility for the South China Tiger to be reintroduced into the wild?

JS: As my project is mainly about what happened in the past, I haven’t looked in depth at current programmes for reintroducing the South China tiger to the wild. However, I believe there are government-sponsored conservation efforts relying on a small stock of captive tigers identified as the right subspecies.

As far as I can see, any such plan could only take place in carefully controlled environments, fenced off from the rest of the world. I’m not sure if that could be called a genuine reintroduction into the wild, but I’m sure people with much more knowledge about such schemes would be debating such moves for years to come.

RG: What lessons can the global conservation community take away from the story of Hong Kong’s lost tigers?

JS: The magical wonders of nature are all around us, even in unexpected places like Hong Kong. But everywhere, they are disappearing fast and once gone, they’re gone forever. We’ve lost so much already, yet we are being told by some optimistic experts in the field there might still be time to reverse the trend.

Today in Hong Kong, the tiger is gone, but its prey, the muntjacs, wild boar and civet cats live on in the surprisingly extensive greenery of the territory. Even pangolins appear to be hanging on, just. If we are going to save ourselves from self-destruction, we are going to have to preserve the precious environment we evolved in. It is as simple as that.

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