XI'AN: Thirteen government officials have been punished and a man arrested for presenting false evidence to prove the highly endangered South China tiger existed in the wild.
The Shaanxi provincial government said Sunday that farmer Zhou Zhenglong had fudged some photographs for the purpose. The government had earlier claimed the photos were real.
A purported South China tiger is pictured in this file photo taken by farmer Zhou Zhenglong. [Xinhua]
The 54-year-old farmer from Zhenping county, who claimed to have photographed the "tiger" with a digital camera on Oct 3 last year, was arrested for alleged fraud on Saturday, said Bai Shaokang, spokesman for the Shaanxi provincial public security bureau. The provincial forestry department has revoked his 20,000-yuan reward ($2,915) too.
Experts believe the South China tiger is the progenitor of all the living tiger species.
Its number in the wild had fallen between 30 and 80 by 1996, when the World Conservation Union put it on its Red List of threatened species. Now, it is widely believed to have become extinct in the wild.
Bai said police have seized the old tiger photograph, which Zhou borrowed from a farmer in another village in September to fudge his photos. A tiger paw made of wood, which he used to create pug marks on snow, has been seized too.
Zhou had insisted that he "risked his life to take the photos of a real tiger".
The 13 officials penalized for the scandal include:
Zhang Shenian, provincial forestry department head - he was reprimanded;
Zhu Julong and Sun Chengqian, provincial forestry department deputy heads - both were sacked;
Guan Ke, provincial media official - sacked;
Wang Wanyun, a provincial official in charge of wildlife preservation - sacked;
Li Qian, official with the wildlife preservation in Zhenping county - sacked.
Seven others, including Zhenping county magistrate and deputy magistrate, have either been reprimanded, given demerit points or sacked.
Photo site identified
Police have found the exact spot where Zhou took the photos. It is in Madaozi forest, 15 km from Wencai village in Zhenping, and is 2,000 m above the sea level, Bai said. "It is a small area with few tall trees not a suitable habitat for a tiger."
Police discovered that the "trees" near the South China tiger in Zhou's photograph were just 0.8 cm in diameter. And calculations showed the "tiger" would have been only 27 cm long.
This is how, according to police, Zhou went about his con job: He heard from members of a search team that photographs of paw marks, feces or the hide of a South China tiger could get him thousands of yuan in reward, and a photo of a real tiger in the wild was worth 1 million yuan.
Zhou acted as a guide for the team in 2006 for which he earned 1,000 yuan.
The lure of easy money made him ask other villagers for tiger photographs. He hid his real motive by saying the photos would help his nephew overcome some psychological problem.
A villager surnamed Peng found a picture with a tiger in his neighbor's house and borrowed it to give it to Zhou. Zhou cut out the tiger from the picture, placed it on the grass and shot several pictures with a camera he had borrowed from his brother-in-law on Sep 27.
But unhappy with the results, he decided to shoot some more photos in a "better spot" on Oct 3. He found such a spot in front of a small tree where he shot the photos that have since created a storm.
This is where the provincial forestry department entered the scene. It claimed, on Oct 12, that Zhou's photos were proof that the rare tiger species still existed in the wild.
Netizens immediately accused Zhou of doctoring the tiger images with digital software, and said the local authorities had approved of the photos because they would boost tourism in the province.
The accusations drove Zhou to make a tiger paw with wood with the help of another villager, surnamed Yi, which he used to make marks on snow and take their photographs.
"The provincial government has learned a lesson from this scandal it reflects the problems in our work," said Xue Chunhua, Shaanxi provincial government spokesman.
Shi Ying, deputy head of the Shaanxi provincial academy of social sciences, said the scandal shows the Internet is becoming an important medium for public opinion.
"The government is paying more attention to Netizens ... this will increase the legal awareness of officials."