“The Last Tigers of Hong Kong” by John Saeki

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In The Last Tigers of Hong Kong, John Saeki presents what might best be described as a chronological anthology of tiger sightings in Hong Kong from its earliest days as a colony right through to the present day. 

Saeki himself would be the first to explain that the record is very much incomplete, not least because most tiger sightings and even their depredations were never reported. Hong Kong’s tigers were very transient visitors from Guangdong. They mostly visited the New Territories. People there tried in general to avoid contact with the foreigners’ government and their police. Unless a human was injured and had to visit a hospital, attacks on livestock and certainly sightings of tigers most often never came to the attention of anyone outside the village.

Nor does Saeki read Chinese. His accounts come entirely from the English press. As he explains, the disdain between the English-speaking population and the illiterate agriculturalists of the New Territories was entirely mutual. Residents of Hong Kong Island tended to dismiss even the few reports of tiger sightings and attacks that made it into the English-language press. Indeed, the expatriate hacks shared their disdain and the press reports were very often qualified with phrases like, “Whether this story … is a figment of the imagination of those … who see a tiger or leopard in very emaciated village pariah dog, must be left to the credulity of our readers.”

But the presence of tigers couldn’t be entirely dismissed as fantasy. Tigers can swim, and over the years a few were spotted on Hong Kong Island. A policeman was killed in 1915, and that of course could not be ignored. In all, four persons are conclusively known to have been killed by tigers in Hong Kong, but many more have been injured over the years.

 

The Last Tigers of Hong Kong: True stories of big cats that stalked Britain’s Chinese colony, John Saeki (Blacksmith Books, August 2022)
The Last Tigers of Hong Kong: True stories of big cats that stalked Britain’s Chinese colony, John Saeki (Blacksmith Books, August 2022)

The experts estimate that since humans invaded the tigers’ range 19 centuries ago, tigers have ended the lives of at least 10,000 of them. They estimate that up until as recently as 1950 at least a few tigers visited Hong Kong every year. Like today’s mainland tourists, they stayed a few days, enjoyed a few good meals, then returned across the border. The equilibrium tiger population in South China is estimated to have been about 4000.

But that population changed with China’s civil war. After 1949 the new communist government emphasized raising agricultural production, and one aspect of that involved reducing the threat from tigers. They organized tiger eradication teams, they offered bounties, and repeating rifles and grenades were left over from the recent conflict. The estimate is that the population of south China tigers in Fujian, Guangdong and Guangxi was reduced to 1000 or so by 1961. By the early 1970s only a couple of bounties were being paid annually, nationwide. Accordingly, fewer tigers found their way to Hong Kong.

Beyond that, quite a few entrepreneurial Chinese who risked being viewed as enemies of the people fled to Britain’s protection after the communist takeover. They industrialized the colony, and factory wages attracted many former or potential agriculturalists. Fields were abandoned. Whole villages were abandoned as Hong Kong industrialized. Tigers are strictly carnivorous, so with fewer pigs and buffalos about, any tiger who found its way over the border had much less incentive to linger. Sightings of course dropped off precipitously.

So when was “The Last Tiger of Hong Kong” sighted? The last spoor confirmed to a level that merited reporting in the English-language press was in 1982. A farmer at Tin Fu Tsai reported hearing a tiger roaring, and officials from the Agriculture and Fisheries Department subsequently collected a nice plaster cast of a tiger’s paw print near the Tai Lam Chung reservoir. In this century, extensive camera trap surveys in the mainland have failed to yield a single sighting. Nevertheless, the last sentence of Saeki’s anthology bears quoting: “I’m pretty sure there are many more stories out there.”


Bill Purves is a Hong Kong-based writer. He is the author of several books, including A Sea of Green: A Voyage Around the World of Ocean Shipping and China on the Lam: On Foot Across the People’s Republic.