2008-06-26 11:46:03 GMT 2008-06-26 19:46:03 (Beijing Time) Xinhua English
XI'AN, June 26 (Xinhua) -- Cautious officials have declined to comment on a rumor the farmer who produced pictures of an endangered South China tiger, which many believed were faked, was detained for investigation.
In a report in Thursday's Beijing News, farmer Zhou Zhenglong, who previously insisted he risked his life to take the photos of areal tiger in the forest at his hometown of Zhenping, in the northwest Shaanxi Province, confessed he faked the images based on real tiger pictures.
The newspaper said the provincial public security department sent a task force to investigate the saga a month ago and Zhou was taken away by local police officers two weeks ago. Local forestry officials and Zhou's neighbors were also questioned.
However, government officials from the forestry and public security departments in Shaanxi told Xinhua they neither heard about the investigation nor had a clue of Zhou's present whereabouts.
"I have no idea about Zhou's detention," said Chen Kang, an official with the public security bureau of Zhenping County. "If the superior office conducts such investigation, we should be informed."
In six visits to his home between June 14 to 18, a Xinhua reporter did not see Zhou. His neighbor Yang Shaozhong said the last time he saw Zhou was on May 8.
Zhou's wife, Luo Dacui, told reporters her husband had disappeared for half a month and she couldn't contact him. She confirmed Thursday morning in a phone call her husband had not returned home.
Wu Ping, the county government chief, and Qin Dapeng, the county's forestry administration head, both refused to comment over the investigation, but added they had no contact with the farmer recently.
However, the newspaper's report was somehow echoed by Yu Hai, a Zhenping villager, who said Zhou was taken away by police more than a month ago.
"They also asked me about what did Zhou do before and after he took the photos on October 3," Yu said.
The tiger photos, first published on Oct. 12, were used by the provincial forestry department as proof the rare tiger still existed in the wild at a press conference. The department awarded Zhou a 20,000 yuan (2,914 U.S. dollars) reward.
But Internet users accused Zhou of making the tiger images with digital software, and local authorities of approving the photos to bolster tourism.
The "paper tiger" saga aroused widespread interest among the public following the appearance of a Lunar New Year commemorative poster whose image of a tiger bore a striking resemblance to the one in Zhou's pictures. Official proof of authenticity was thus strongly demanded.
The embarrassed provincial forestry department apologized to the public in a letter for "curtly publicizing the discovery of the wild South China Tiger" in February, but made no comment on the publication's authenticity
The South China tiger, also called the "Amoy" or "Xiamen tiger," is widely believed to be extinct in the wild. It is thought to be the ancestor of all tigers, according to the World Wildlife Fund.
The tiger is considered critically endangered, mainly due to a loss of habitat. By 1996, the tigers numbered only 30 to 80, according to the World Conservation Union's Red List of threatened species.