Endangered species photo fuels ‘Tigergate’: Allegations of faked tiger picture stir emotions over decline of China’s wildlife

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For conservationists, the news was exceptional. Chinese officials announced last fall that at least one South China tiger, a species not seen in the wild for more than 20 years, still roamed the country’s forests.But almost as soon as the forestry department of China’s central Shaanxi province released photographs of the animal, the story began to unravel.

People posting to Internet chat rooms pointed out that the tiger looked identical to one in a popular Chinese New Year poster and could have been digitally added to the photographs. Journalists argued that a tiger was unlikely to sit still for 20 minutes, the time the local government says that a farmer took to shoot 40 digital images of the animal.

A panel of prominent zoologists, photographers and criminal detectives convened by a Chinese Web site analyzed the images and declared them fake. Among other clues, they pointed out that the tiger holds the same posture in every photo, grass around its feet is undisturbed and its eyes reflect no light.

Instead of offering hope that China is improving conservation efforts, the incident — dubbed “Tigergate” by China’s media — has highlighted how economic development often trumps environmental protection.

China’s pollution, population growth and development have had “a huge impact on wildlife,” said Hu Huijian, a professor at the South China Institute of Endangered Animals in Guangzhou. “There’s not much true wilderness left.”

In China, 83 species of mammals, 86 bird species and 60 kinds of fish are on the verge of extinction, according to the World Conservation Union, a network of hundreds of government and nonprofit groups.

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