In the days when Hong Kong was filled with swathes of dense forest instead of skyscrapers, the city was home to many species that would be foreign and exotic to residents today. Perhaps none have been more captivating, elusive, and deadly than the South China tiger.
The most distinctive of all tiger subspecies, the South China tiger once boasted a reported population of 4,000 in the wild, spanning from Hunan and Jiangxi in the north to Hong Kong. In the early days of the territory as a British colony, tigers were not a common sight. But certainly the local tiger was as dangerous as it was unique.
Over 100 years ago, in 1915, a tiger reportedly killed two policemen sent to subdue the beast after villagers spotted it in Sheung Shui. Constable Ruttan Singh was killed at the scene by the tiger, while his colleague Ernest Goucher suffered grave wounds which led to his death three days later. Reinforcements killed the tiger later that day, and it was displayed at City Hall. The head of the tiger was mounted at the Central Police Station, where it remained for 60 years. It it now at the Police Museum on Hong Kong Island.
Nearly 30 years later, Geoffrey Charles Emerson documented his own experience with a wild tiger in Hong Kong. A former history and English teacher, Chaucer was interned at the Stanley Internment Camp by Japanese forces during World War II. Guards spotted and killed a male tiger roaming around the encampment.
According to Emerson’s account in his book Hong Kong Internment, 1942-1945: Life in the Japanese Civilian Camp at Stanley, the tiger was stuffed and put on exhibition in the city while officials of the Hong Kong Race Club were given the privilege of feasting on the tiger meat.
“For weeks there had been rumours in the camp that a tiger was roaming around at night. As rumours were always prevalent, most internees refused to believe such a ‘preposterous’ tale. Therefore, it came as a great surprise when a male tiger weighing more than 200 pounds was killed just outside the camp by a party of Japanese gendarmes,” he wrote.
The South China tiger has since fallen from its days of glory, after many of them fell victim to “pest control” measures put forward during the Great Leap Forward. Increased hunting and deforestation have caused a major crisis, leading to the species being classified as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
While South China tigers survive in reserves around the world, survival of the species in the wild is considered to be incredibly unlikely.