Guernica Magazine

Ghost Tigers: Climate Change and the Escalation of Extinction

As the climate crisis intensifies, try this simple exercise: count how many animals you can’t see. The post Ghost Tigers: Climate Change and the Escalation of Extinction appeared first on Guernica.
Illustration: Jia Sung.

No one knows how, in 1942, a tiger came to be on Hong Kong Island. Some argued it was a circus escapee, freed during the Japanese invasion when a bomb blasted a hole through its paddock. Others pointed out that it might simply have swam across Victoria Harbor from mainland China. It wouldn’t have been the first: tigers were a rarity in twentieth-century Hong Kong, but hardly the stuff of fiction.

However it got to Hong Kong Island, it never got off. Police shot the young male dead, its fulsome orange-striped body reduced to a ratty gray skin that still hangs in Tin Hau temple. In the decades since, the South China tiger (Panthera tigris amoyensis) has become one of the world’s most endangered animals.

Tigers had always been an occasional—if potent—presence in the New Territories, a large swath of the mainland and several islands adjoining China’s Pearl River Delta. It was not so long ago when, in 1915—after being dispatched to investigate what were thought to be spurious local reports—British policeman Ernest Goucher and Indian constable Ruttan Singh were mauled to death by one such cat near Fanling. Unconfirmed accounts of (and injuries by) tigers continued into the mid-twentieth century, when, in an all-too-common refrain, the animal faded into memory.

Before the 1950s, some four thousand tigers roamed throughout southern China’s provincesmore than the total number of wild tigers, of all subspecies, alive today. Then, during the Great Leap Forward, China’s havoc-wreaking industrialization campaign, tigers were declared a “pest” and their numbers plummeted. Those that straggled on into the later twentieth century were picked off by poachers capitalizing on an increasingly lucrative trade in tiger skins and bones, which to this day are flaunted as status symbols and used in traditional medicines.

The South China tiger may not be gone yeta confirmed sighting in 2007, in the northern Shaanxi province, offers some hope that a healthy wild population might be restored. But in Hong Kong, where I live, tigers are gone.

I think about them sometimes, returning home alone and at night. A ten-minute walk from the train and the world of concrete ends abruptly in a narrow, pedestrian-only path, which skirts the edge of a marsh and winds through a clutch of bamboo forest. Dense and laced with jungle creepers, humming with insect lifein times past, it offered ideal concealment for a big, hungry cat. So maybe, if only for my own sake, I shouldn’t miss them.

I do anyway. We

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