a1 Minnesota Zoo, 13000 Zoo Blvd, Apple Valley, MN 55124, USA
a2 Kunming Institute of Zoology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Xiamacun, Kunming, Yunnan 650223, People's Republic of China.
The South China tiger Panthera tigris amoyensis is the rarest of the five living tiger subspecies, the most critically threatened and the closest to extinction. No wild South China tigers have been seen by officials for 25 years and one was last brought into captivity 27 years ago. The 19 reserves listed by the Chinese Ministry of Forestry within the presumed range of the tiger are spatially fragmented and most are too small to support viable tiger populations. Over the last 40 years wild populations have declined from thousands to a scattered few. Despite its plight and occasional anecdotal reports of sightings by local people, no intensive field study has been conducted on this tiger subspecies and its habitat. The captive population of about 50 tigers, derived from six wild-caught founders, is genetically impoverished with low reproductive output. Given the size and fragmentation of potential tiger habitat, saving what remains of the captive population may be the only option left to prevent extinction of this tiger subspecies, and even this option is becoming increasingly less probable. This precarious dilemma demands that conservation priorities be re-evaluated and action taken immediately to decide if recovery of the wild population will be possible.