The Last Tigers of Hong Kong by John Saeki
Reviewed by Thomas Gomersall in the 2023 Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society Hong Kong
As a lifelong wildlife enthusiast, and a more recent history enthusiast, I find it striking how rarely we seem to examine the two side-by-side, given our long association with animals through the ages. As an enthusiast for Hong Kong wildlife in particular, it is equally striking how little awareness exists here of our long-gone top predator: the South China tiger. At most, you may find someone vaguely familiar with the story of the tiger that killed two policemen in 1915, or the one shot outside Stanley Internment Camp in 1942. And that’s if you’re lucky.
So, imagine my delight at discovering that author John Saeki had not only conducted the first comprehensive review of tigers in Hong Kong, but had turned his findings into one of the most well-researched, fascinating books on wildlife and history that I have yet to read: The Last Tigers of Hong Kong.
The book’s biggest takeaway is that tigers were a far more common and recent occurrence in Hong Kong than many would assume. Through meticulous trawling of news reports and articles, Saeki has uncovered credible, hitherto overlooked evidence of at least 60 tiger-related incidents here between 1901 and 1965. Most were fleeting visitors from Mainland China, but even so, they left their mark in the form of pawprints, mauled livestock and the occasional direct sighting. More still likely went unrecorded, as distrust of colonial authorities meant that wildlife encounters weren’t always reported by local people.
What is more surprising is just how adaptable these tigers were. When the forests of Southern China shrank and the human population swelled, they stayed put. When their wild prey ran out, they simply turned to livestock. Sometimes, they would even explore the relatively urban jungle of Hong Kong Island. A particularly amusing example is the tiger (or several) that wandered the neighbourhoods of the Peak in 1914 and 1916, prowling gardens and tennis courts, spooking tram passengers, and casually sunbathing on a road in Pok Fu Lam in front of two European witnesses. One could almost imagine a friendly camaraderie between it and the urban wild boars of today.
Saeki also includes plenty for more conventional history buffs too, vividly setting his tiger stories against the backdrop of early- to mid-twentieth century Hong Kong and Mainland China. Indeed, understanding this history is key to understanding why tigers have left such scant impression on Hong Kong’s collective memory.
Largely to blame was the seemingly wilful ignorance (and racism) of Western colonial inhabitants, who tended to dismiss Chinese tiger accounts as gossip and childish fabrications—despite how closely many locals lived to real tigers in the rural New Territories. More bafflingly, neither was the word of respected Western men, like biologist Geoffrey Herklots, enough to convince many of the truth. Even when faced with solid evidence—like the publicly displayed corpse of the 1915 policeman killer—Western belief in Hong Kong tigers was always fickle.
To be fair, most Westerners lived on the coast far from tiger country, and the cats’ natural elusiveness helped them to largely evade detection and/or capture (yes, even the aforementioned Peak tiger). Other historical events also conspired to distract attention from them, like the Japanese occupation in World War II. Given how sparse the reporting for most of his stories must have been, it’s remarkable how Saeki can write anywhere from a single paragraph to half a chapter of descriptions about them.
Notably, the book doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities of living alongside top predators. Most of its stories are of tigers killing livestock, which as we are poignantly reminded several times, could devastate the lives of already poor farmers. On rarer occasions, humans themselves were the victims, like when the ‘Tai Wai Rambler’ of 1937 ate two people on Tai Mo Shan. Even the two well-armed policemen in 1915 were easily torn to shreds. Such accounts chillingly remind us of how flimsy our so-called ‘dominance’ of the natural world really is. A paper tiger, you might call it.
That said, Saeki doesn’t hesitate to point out the suffering we inflicted in return. In 1926, a tiger caught in a deer trap was indignantly paraded down Tai Po Road, locked in a cage in Lee Garden that even its captors eventually deemed inadequate for it, and finally died a doubtless agonising death from an infected broken leg. In the 1940s, tiger meat was occasionally sold in Hong Kong and in the decade afterwards the Cultural Revolution’s organised anti-predator campaigns wiped out the source populations in Mainland China, adding an entire subspecies to its millions of human casualties.
Like all the best history, The Last Tigers of Hong Kong offers a vivid glimpse of a bygone age; when the greatest of carnivores roamed freely in the last place many would ever suspect. Equally, it is also a timely, saddening reminder of what we can never have back. Eradicated in the wild and with captive populations impotently small, the South China tiger is gone forever from Hong Kong and likely soon from our planet too. On current trajectories, as many as a million other species could share the same fate. In a world where we still decimate habitats, slaughter wildlife, and turn a blind eye to impending ecological collapse, have we really come that far from those who doomed Hong Kong’s tigers?
Perhaps then the real value of The Last Tigers of Hong Kong isn’t as a history book, or even a natural history book, but as a lesson about the mistakes we keep making to this day. A warning to start learning from them at last, or join the South China tiger on the road to extinction.