Two years ago, a couple was hiking on Ma On Shan when they spotted something terrifying: a tiger. At least, that’s what they thought they saw. After reporting it to the police, who escorted them out of the country park to hospital, where they were treated for shock, authorities scoured the hillside for traces of the animal. They found nothing.
In all likelihood, the couple had actually spotted a leopard cat, because Hong Kong “no longer has enough space to support tigers,” according to Michael Lau, director of the World Wildlife Fund’s Wetlands Conservation department. “The last substantiated tiger sighting was in Sha Tin in 1947,” he told the BBC.
If it had been a century earlier, the couple would have had good reason to be fearful. Tigers were known to prowl the Hong Kong countryside, sometimes leaving a trail of death and destruction in their wake. The most famous case of a tiger attack was in 1915, when police officers were investigating reports that a tiger had killed a villager in the northern New Territories. They managed to find the creature, but it ended up mauling two of the officers, Ernest Goucher and Ruttan Singh, who died from their injuries. A third officer emptied his revolver into the tiger and killed it.
The other well-known case involves a tiger—which had possibly escaped from a circus—that was prowling outside the Stanley internment camp in 1942, during the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong. It was shot and killed by a policeman named Rur Singh, and a prisoner in the camp, who had been a butcher at Dairy Farm, was conscripted to skin the creature. Japanese officers and members of the Hong Kong Jockey Club feasted upon its meat, and its skin now hangs inside the Stanley Tin Hau Temple.
Tigers are sensational beasts, majestic looking but also frighteningly dangerous to humans. Particularly voracious tigers have earned mythical status, including the Champawat Tiger, who in the first decade of the 20th century killed around 200 people in Nepal before she was driven from the country – only to claim another 236 victims in northern India until she was hunted down and killed. And while tiger populations have been decimated in recent decades—the felines are now considered endangered, with fewer than 4,000 around the world—they still claim several human lives every year in the Sundarbans region of India, home to the world’s densest surviving population of tigers.
So it should not come as a surprise that for a wild animal that no longer exists in Hong Kong, tigers have received no shortage of attention. In his spare time, John Saeki, a Hong Kong-based graphics editor for Agence France-Presse, has documented many instances of tiger sightings through Hong Kong’s history. He has scoured through newspaper archives and spoken to elderly villagers in the New Territories in an attempt to document encounters between tigers and Hong Kong’s residents over the years.
In the 1910s alone, he told journalist Annemarie Evans earlier this year, “I got about 90 reports in my spreadsheet and I separated them out into 14 possible separate tiger visits in that decade.”
Around that time, tigers were common enough that villagers needed to be vigilant when they were tending their fields. But while there are reports of tigers decimating entire villages in southern China, in most cases, actual sightings of the big cats were far outpaced by their terrifying reputation. A typical newspaper report told of two women in Cheung Sha Wan stepping outside of their homes to investigate a noise, only to see a tiger swoop in and carry off a large pig in its jaws. Other reports describe how Peak residents were spooked by stories of two tigers prowling the well-to-do enclave. “They generated a lot of copy,” said Saeki.
Even so, most tiger encounters went unreported. On October 29, 1926, the front page of the Hong Kong Telegraph carried news that a live tiger had been caught in Sha Tin. According to the newspaper, a police officer was walking down Tai Po Road when he happened across a pair of villagers who were carrying a tiger in a cage. They explained that they had left a trap for deer on a hill a short walk from their village, but when they went to check on it the following morning, it had been dragged away, leaving a trail in the ground. They followed it to a nearby pit where they found a tiger whose leg had been snared by the trap.
The villagers had been en route to the Sha Tin railway station when they encountered the constable. “Had [he] not met the party at Taipo Road, the fact of another tiger having been caught in the New Territories might not have been made known, for no report of the incident was made at Shatin Police Station,” reported the Telegraph.
The tigers that once lived in Hong Kong are South China tigers, part of the Panthera tigris tigris subspecies that includes Siberian tigers and Bengal tigers. Compared to those other tigers, though, South China tigers are smaller, and they have distinctly shaped skulls and coats, leading some scientists to believe that they are in fact a distinct subspecies of their own. Their numbers in the wild were estimated at 4,000 in the 1950s, but Mao Zedong’s “anti-pest” campaign during the Great Leap Forward—which also targeted sparrows and rats—saw that number plummet as farmers were encouraged to hunt down and kill as many tigers as they could.
Similar stories have decimated the number of other kinds of tigers around the world. Until very recently, tigers were seen as dangerous beasts that needed to be eliminated – although the only reason they were dangerous is because humans continued to encroach on their habitats. Sitting as they do atop the food chain, tigers play an important ecological role by keeping various other animal populations in check. Their decline has made them endangered throughout the world, although they manage to survive not only in the places most often identified with them, including South Asia, Siberia and northern China, but also in various parts of Southeast Asia. But that survival is a struggle in the face of continued habitat loss and poaching for pelts and body parts that are used in folk medicine.
Unfortunately, it is too late for the South China subspecies, which is functionally extinct. Today, a handful of them live in various Chinese zoos, but no other signs of the creatures have been found since the 1980s.
That has been the sad fate of many wild animals that once thrived in Hong Kong. But tigers live on in spirit, haunting the city’s hills and fields – enough to spook the occasional hiker, even if they no longer exist.