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Korean Tigers Back from the Brink of Extinction, Except in South Korea

Gavin Hudson wrote an interesting and somewhat poetic article about the plight of tigers in Korea.

It’s been decades since anyone has seen a tiger in South Korea. The final tiger was captured either in 1922 or in 1944 on the southern tip of the peninsula, depending on whom you ask. But in some places, their ghosts still cast shadows across the landscape. Ribbons of morning mist cut into deep valleys, setting apart the dark mountain ridges one after another like black stripes across the skin of the land; bears, the tiger’s partner in Korea’s creation myth, still wander in some mountains; and autumn’s tawny, dappled hillsides make it especially easy–and slightly unsettling–to imagine the tiger’s presence.

Of course the article I did on the Korean tiger a couple of years ago wasn’t quite so poetic and romantic, but did perhaps explain why it is “slightly unsettling to imagine the tiger’s presence.” According to an old Chinese saying: “The Korean hunts the tiger six months in the year and the tiger hunts the Korean the other six months.” The Korean tiger was said to be extremely smart and endowed with supernatural abilities:

The tiger was alleged to be able to cry out like a human and lure his victims out into the open where he would quickly kill them and drag them away, leaving nothing more than a pool of blood and tattered clothing. Failing to lure his victims out into the open, he often forced his way into the homes, either through a door or the weak thatched-roof, carrying away young screaming children and devouring them in the safety of the forest.

Despite the tigers’ horrible toll on Koreans and their livestock in the past, modern Koreans are still trying to protect these great beasts. In 1999, Nang-rim, a North Korean tiger, was brought to South Korea as a good-will gesture and attempt to help preserve the species. Dr. Hwang Woo-Suk, the stem cell scientist with a somewhat colorful past, promised to clone Nang-rim. “I’ll spread the Korean people’s spirit by cloning the Mount Paektu tiger,” declared Hwang. Despite his efforts, the plight of the Korean tiger is still dire – even in captivity.

Zoos, often touted as sanctuaries for perserving endangered species, are, sadly enough, often nothing more than venues for our entertainment. While there have been a lot of improvements over the years, these zoos are often dangerous to man and beasts. According to the East Windup Chronicle Blog, patrons watched in horror as a lion savagely killed a tiger in a Korean zoo last December. The Korean newspapers here and here give some pretty gory pictures of the poor tiger after it strayed into the lion’s enclosure.

The lion may have won in South Korea, but in North Korea he would have found himself on his back and fighting for his life. According to our resident fishing guide and outdoors man, James Card, the tigers, and for that matter, the other endangered animals, in North Korean zoos are pitted against one another, at least in the past, in an effort to raise money. Card describes the encounter between the tiger and the lion:

…a lioness and a tiger are trapped in what appears to be a zoo cage. The background is of iron bars and fake rocks made of poured concrete. The animals growl. Though there is no explanation of why the two are poised to fight, it is assumed the battle is between two territorial animals being forced to share a small cage. The two tear into each other, with the lioness often fighting from her back…From this brief scene, the narrator posits that the lioness is cowardly and the tiger is the more powerful of these alpha-predators, hinting at animistic nationalism, in the sense that “our native beast is stronger than the foreign beast”.

You can rest the rest of Card’s article here.

  • CactusMcHarris

    I’d often wondered if the weird DPRK folk had exploited that national treasure – by golly, why am I still surprised that they made movies of it. Somehow, insane acts by an insane state still should be expected. It’s sickening, but is it as bad as allowing their people to starve to death? No, even though I generally like animals more than people.

  • http://ghosttreemedia.com hoju_saram

    Robert, your spam catcher has been particularly harsh on me the last few weeks. Seems like every time I post anything with a link in it it fails. I’ll try again:

  • http://ghosttreemedia.com hoju_saram

    No joy, can’t post links. Is that by design or is it a bug? In any case, can you revive my post?

  • Charles Tilly

    I’m not that up to speed on the pertinent facts concerning this matter, but if what is written in this post is true it can only be good news.

    Perhaps these beautiful, feral creatures can be used to devour some of the slovenly, smug, and self-satisfied expats residing in South Korea.

  • http://www.sperwerslog.com Sperwer

    Starting with you.

  • Charles Tilly

    “Starting with you.”

    Well, that would probably make your day Sperwer. Unfortunately, however, I’m neither slovenly, smug, self-satisfied, an expat, or for that matter reside in South Korea.

    I guess the tigers will just have to start with you seeing as how your comment indicates the first three things I’ve enumerated. Be sure to woof down as many burgers, brats, Hershey bars, and chocolate shakes so as to fatten up for those monstrous felines. They’re probably hungry after all.

  • SomeguyinKorea

    I saw one of those North Korean ‘zoo’ videos. One of my friends had rented it, thinking it would be a serious and professionally made documentary about North Korean animals.

    To say it was bad wouldn’t do it justice.

  • globalvillageidiot

    It is a shame that the tiger was wiped out in South Korea. One popular spin on the demise of Korea’s national animal is that it was the Japanese that were responsible for this happening, but from what I’ve read/heard, tigers were already highly endangered in the south by the time of the Japanese annexation of the peninsula. More than a century ago, Korea – the south, at least – was already too small, crowded, and devoid of adequate habitat to sustain tigers for much longer.

    Every couple of years there will be a “news” report about a possible sighting in rural Gyeongsang province, but considering the range a tiger requires in the wild and the lack of other tigers to breed with, it is next to impossible that a population could have escaped undetected here for so long. (I’d love to be proven wrong and for some farmer seeing a tiger in the woods after 3 bottles of 참 to be correct, but I doubt that will happen.)

    As far as the lion versus tiger thing goes, there have been cases of both the tiger and lion winning a one-on-one encounter. (I think the Romans, as well as somewhat more recent western animal abusers may have tried pitting these cats against each other in staged fights sometime before the North Koreans did it.)

    Tigers are generally bigger than lions – and Siberian Tigers are the biggest of all – and likely stronger than lions. However, because lions live in prides they are probably better designed for – or, in some cases, used to – fighting with other large cats, and that may help to cancel out the tiger’s size and strength advantages.

  • R. Elgin

    I find topics like this depressing because, though we get plenty of the current administration’s GREEN this and that, that is still only a reference to alleged “green” industry, rather than the recognition of any Korean national resources. A scientist can clone all the tigers in the world but, without the nurturing or preservation of a sustainable habitat for Korean natural resources, this is only a little better than praying for the dead squirrel that got run over, out in the road.

    The current administration has tossed several ideas for the failed Saemanguem Project — industrial park, research park, a new Dubai, theme park — but it turns out there will not be enough living Koreans to run such a new Dubai; the birthrate in Korea and projected results indicate there would not be enough manpower, unless Korea begins importing workers like Dubai does. It would be far more encouraging if the current government were to develop some meaningful, long-term philosophy, goals and ways of reaching these goals than simply putting the word GREEN on anything and everything.

    For more thought and discussion, please consider these earlier threads:

    http://www.rjkoehler.com/2008/02/23/korean-pines-baseball-bats-warm-bugs-and-resource-management/

    http://www.rjkoehler.com/2007/07/09/music-education-for-korea/

    http://www.rjkoehler.com/2007/05/13/more-starvation-in-korea/

  • R. Elgin

    P.S.: If one wants to post URLs in a post, I would suggest leaving off the “http” part of the URL and begin with the “www” only. Otherwise, the spam filter will eat your post like so much spam.

  • http://ghosttreemedia.com hoju_saram

    thanks for the tip, R.Elgin. Here goes…

    There was a show on TV not long back called Safari where lions and tigers were loosed into the same enclosure and encouraged to fight. At least one of the tigers ended up seriously wounded. Seemed to regular fixture:

    http://kr.blog.yahoo.com/shinanda/91595.html?p=1&t=3

    Notice the white tiger in the bottom pic:

    http://blog.empas.com/daimon21c/read.html?a=25512909&l=7837750&v=comment

    As far as the DPRK is concerned I visited a circus there when I went on a tour a few years back. The circus had bears performing in it, and it doubled as a sort of apothecary where you could buy bear bile from some of the less fortunate mammals that were tied up around the back with tubes in their guts.

    In fairness, I suppose this is also quite common in China, but it was still shocking to see it first hand.

  • http://ghosttreemedia.com hoju_saram

    Thanks for the tip, but unless I’m mistaken, with some subdomain addresses the browser won’t accept www instead of the http (although I just discovered that replacing the http with nothing seems to work – whether your nazi spam catcher will accept them is another story).

    Anyway, the point I made was that at everland “safari” zoo, tigers and lions are often put together to provoke fights. There was a show on tv not long back caled safari which showed the animals mauling each other with that sort of cute animal commentary that gives the creature’s babyish human voices. Unfortunately lots of the tigers and lions were distressed and wounded by the end of it.

    blog.empas.com/daimon21c/read.html?a=25512909&l=7837750&v=comment

    kr.blog.yahoo.com/shinanda/91595.html?p=1&t=3

  • http://ghosttreemedia.com hoju_saram

    Shock horror, it worked, except of course you can’t click the links – just copy and paste them. You need to overhaul your spam catcher.

  • R. Elgin

    I loved this spooky description of being out in the wild with a Siberian tiger, per Valentin Shamytin:

    . . . In the summer of 1946, on going through the Sikhote-Alin in Terney region of the reserve, I passed through the left watershed of inflows. This transition had coincided with the period of mass appearance of bloodsucking insects, therefore animals had all moved out to the foothills of the Sikhote-Alin and to the burns, so I was the only “representative of fauna”, being able to satisfy a hungry large predator. Intending to stay at the night in one of the cabins, I slowed down and had to walk in perfect darkness. About two kilometers not reaching up to the cabin, I heard among rustle and crackling of branches made by myself, repeating from time to time rustles and crackling that came from away. These extraneous sounds sometimes came near to me, from time to time stopped or disappeared. By force of the sound of branches crackling and rustle, it was a large animal. It followed me from aside, parallel to my course, sometimes coming up to the distance of 50 meters, and sometimes even closer… Such behaviour is only characteristic of tiger, for other animals after recognizing presence of man immediately try to run away. Thus distinguishing a tiger to be the animal, I decided to frighten it off by shooting from the rifle, and the animal heavily rushed aside and for some time abandoned me, but in a while it proceeded (sic). In about ten minutes it attached to me again, and I was again compelled to shoot in air. It repeated a few times, while the animal had kept close to me. Finally by recognizing the “fellow traveller” of a tiger, I have mobilized all my attention and care, listening to slightest rustle and crackling. And still, despite of it, I was taken by surprise. By outstripping me, the tiger lay down on my way letting me come up by 5-6 meters, then jumped in (by me?) my side, but apparently from fear made a usual, “tactical” miss… Fairly frightened, I started to cannonade. Then I immediately set up the fire and decided to stop for the night, not reaching the cabin some 800 meters. Despite of the noise made by me and the fire, the tiger still did not leave my bivouac for long. It circled around several times being not confused on my repeated shots. Only after I had cooked supper for myself and boiled the tea, the tiger, at last, left me in rest. Finally it growled in a voice a little resembling the clang of an axe at the impact of the frozen wood. The picture of an attack became especially clear in the morning… At old fallen trunks there were traces of a lying beast – the trampled grass. On the oozy ground there were traces displaying the moment of hunt and of a sharp jump across my way. In my opinion, it was the same female and that it passed me off near its den.

  • hamel

    Now might be a time to mention that Korea once also had a lot of leopards.

    Somewhere in the Marmot’s archive, and a whole chapter in Donald Clark’s excellent “Living Dangerously in Korea” is the story of the Yankovsky tiger/leopard/wild boar unter family. Part of my library is devoted to collecting tales about/references to them.

    re: Charles Tilly’s amusing banter, I will rise to the “bait” so to speak: where is anybody getting good, reasonably priced brats in Korea? I have watched the Canadian imported packs of brats sold at Costco increase in price over the last year, such that they are now close to 30,000 for 10!

  • exit86

    Great topic and great stories linked!
    As with all “bad” things in Korea, the Japanese are
    usually blamed. I’ve heard from professional educators that the tiger’s extinction and Korea’s severe deforestation in the early 20th century were caused by Japan. Of course all one needs to do is look in
    any journal written by a non-Korean at that time to see that Korea
    was responsible for both. Even annals from missionaries in the 1600′s note that Korea’s big export (to Japan) was tiger fur and the biggest business was the sale of firewood for the voracious stove/ondol systems.

    I like Isabella Bird Bishop’s anecdote (1897) about how she was in
    a Korean inn up north in winter. After dark, all windows and doors were shut tight and somehow locked in fear of the tiger. The problem was that the ondol was going full blast, so it got hot as hell in her room, which then drove all the bugs in the matress and floor scuttling about all night. I always (jokingly) attribute the seemingly inherent Korean aversion to fresh air in busses and trains (especially in the winter when such enclosed spaces are in their most stuffy and stifling state) to this ancient fear of tigers barging in and gobbling up someone.

    Tigers are cute in the zoo; but I can’t say I’m sad that they aren’t roaming around my neighbor like they might have a few hundred years ago.

    Interesting topic though. Thanks Robert N.!!

  • http://www.sperwerslog.com Sperwer

    “Starting with you.”

    Well, that would probably make your day Sperwer. Unfortunately, however, I’m neither slovenly, smug, self-satisfied, an expat, or for that matter reside in South Korea.

    I guess the tigers will just have to start with you seeing as how your comment indicates the first three things I’ve enumerated. Be sure to woof down as many burgers, brats, Hershey bars, and chocolate shakes so as to fatten up for those monstrous felines. They’re probably hungry after all.

    That’s all you got? Some more pissante smugness.

    First you’re the pot then you’re the kettle.

    Well, at least it’s clear that you’re too lean pickins for any self-respecting tiger. We’ll have to leave your self-important self for the rats.

  • CactusMcHarris

    Ask Sperwer to a party – he’s the one throwing up in the punch. Lovely commentary there, tiger.

  • R. Elgin

    “Sperwer” — feed the tigers if you will but *please* don’t feed the poseur troll.

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  • Jameshawkins43

    I beg to pardon. I saw a tiger in Korea in april 1964.  I was stationed north of the Imjim river at ferry site number 1. The site was north of the river across from the village of Imjim-ni. It was about 2 in the morning and I was coming back from moving a raft away from shore to keep it from getting grounded when the tide went out.  I suddenly heard a bunch of roe deer running away from the river and across the road that ran parallel to the river.  I climbed into a parked two and half ton truck and turned on the headlights. I then saw it. It stretched completely across the road. It must have been 8 feet long from head to tail . I had always ridiculed the KATUSAS when they claimed that they had heard a tiger cry out at night. At the time I thought tigers only lived in the jungle. When I awakened the rest of the men only the Korean soldiers believed me. Some of the  old men who lived in Imjim – ni  told of seeing tigers swimming the river when the fished at night. Although it was forbidden for them to go out on the river at night in their boats, they sometimes took the chance and did.