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Vertebrates

A view to a kill - the mythologisation progress in action
Wildlife around the HKU campus?
An Ardeid population of regional importance
Should Hong Kong's freshwater fishes be protected by law?

A view to a kill - the mythologisation process in action

by Jonathan Downes jon@eclipse.co.uk

"It seems rather pretty`, she said when she had finished it, `but it's rather hard to understand`!` (You see she didn`t like to confess even to herself that she couldn`t make it out at all). `Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas - only I don`t exactly know what they are! However SOMEBODY killed SOMETHING - that`s clear at any rate!"

Charles Dodgson a.k.a Lewis Carroll "Alice Through the Looking Glass" (1872)

The phenomenon known as `Alien Big Cats` (ABC) whilst sometimes being used to describe cryptids such as the hitherto undescribed maned mystery cats of parts of North America, or the putative sabre toothed cats of Chad, and more commonly used to describe `pseudocryptids` like `The Beast of Bodmin` is more truly used to describe creatures whose true nature is far less certain. In my book "The Rising of the Moon" (Domra, 1999) I discuss the true nature of such zooform apparitions and suggest a possible paradigm to explain their continued existence.

However, in most cases, what are described as ABC reports are in reality nothing of the sort. In the United Kingdom, at least, the vast majority of `big cat` reports that are not explainable by a misinterpretation of a known member of the zoofauna of the region, or by a deliberate hoax, are attributable to sightings of an introduced wild animal. It is an open secret that in the wake of the 1976 dangerous Wild Animals Act, many people who kept exotic species of animal as pet were forced to release them into the wild, where they have stayed ever since.

The important issue at stake is NOT whether pumas, and other species of exotic felid are at large in the English countryside. They are. I`ve seen one. No, the really interesting thing about the whole episode of British Big Cats is the way that they are a perfect indication of what I have dubbed the Mythologisation Process - the way that a known animal `becomes` a monster. The way that a small but viable population of pumas has become known as "The Beast of Exmoor" and "The Beast of Bodmin" - appelations more usually given by the popular press to wanted war criminals or particularly brutal rapists. In short, the process by which hard science becomes a legend.

It is a paradigm that one encounters again and again within cryptozoology and its allied disciplines, and although it is both annoying and frustrating when one encounters it - it seems to be an important part of the human condition to subject one`s experiences to this Mythologisation Process.

In order to examine the process further, I would like to take an in depth look at an event which happened over eighty years ago in what was then the British Crown Colony of Hong Kong.

In July 1965 a senior girl at the Diocesan Girls` School was enjoying a picnic with classmates in the foothills of Tai Mo Shan, when, according to John Luff, she saw:

"...a tiger stalking through the nearby undergrowth.

The hue and cry was sounded, and immediately a party armed with heavy sporting rifles, led by Inspector Luk Hung-Kuen, searched the slopes of the mountain Tai Mo Shan. In the foothills the going was easy over well trodden footpaths, but higher up rough, coarse grass slowed their progress considerably. Their frustration changed to excitement as within a well shaded spot the grass was flattened, as if the tiger had been resting there. But no tiger was seen, and the only evidence of wildlife the tired party could show was some angry looking mosquito bites.

Three weeks passed, and the shouts of `tiger!` had sunk to whispers of contempt, and then .... three different groups from three different villages reported having seen a tiger.

Such evidence could not be overlooked. The tiger was given a code name, and his existence was taken seriously. From now on, he would receive the dignity of being acknowledged in print as `The Shing Mun Tiger`, named after the valley that he was reported to be raiding. Further respect was paid to him in that a European Superintendant of Police, Mr C Shields, led the party that would dispose of the tiger.

But no tiger was seen, although the party searched the hills for two days.

During August, September, and October, the `Shing Mun Tiger` was hunted. Rumour grew upon rumour. Doubtless this was a charmed tiger, a spirit tiger, sent to punish some wicked village for misdeeds unknown to the Hong Kong Government, but doubtless known to the ethereal courts. The folklore is rich with such anecdotes.

But the Hong Kong Police have insufficient time to chase flesh and blood beasts, to say nothing of phantoms. So the news of the tiger disappeared from the newspapers, although the villagers kept a watchful eye open, knowing they were not mistaken".

The scenario described above is a familiar one to any fortean zoologist who has `wasted` (if that is the right term) months of his life chasing (in a metaphorical sense) nebulous big cats through the columns of newspapers and the archives of regional libraries, only to have them discorporate in front of him in a miasma of lies, hoaxes, half-truths and mistaken identities.

The Chinese Tiger, (P. tigris amoyensis), is arguably one of the most spectacular denizens of the cryptofauna of Hong Kong.

This magnificent animal is now nearly extinct in the wild. In February 1996, the World Wide Fund for Nature confirmed that there are only between 30 and 80 South China Tigers, still in the wild. Well within living memory, however it was far more widespread, and there have been many well documented accounts of visits by tigers to Hong Kong. One line in Karl Shuker`s account of the `Shing Mun Tiger` episode, from his 1989 book "Mystery cats of the World" is particularly poignant:

"She was quite naturally alarmed but also very surprised, as tigers are not supposed to exist here".

Dr Shuker was right. Tigers aren`t supposed to exist within the borders of Hong Kong, even the most eminent of the colony`s zoologists have got their facts wrong on this matter. In 1981 Dennis Hill and Karen Phillips wrote that:

"Unfortunately, the two most spectacular cats that used to be regular visitors to Hong Kong are no longer seen here. These are the South China Tiger (P. t. amoyensis) and the Leopard (P .pardus). The last recorded tiger was shot in the New Territories in 1915, and the last Leopard in 1931".

Hill and Phillips may well have been correct when they said that by 1981 the creatures had ceased to visit the territory, but in both cases they were spectacularly wrong with their dates of the most recent records.

In 1975 Guggisberg wrote:

"The Chinese Tiger used to be found in large parts of Eastern China, especially in Fukien (now FUJIAN) and Chekiang (now ZHEJIANG), from where it went North to about 38 or 40 latitude and penetrated into Central China along the valley of the Yang-Tze". (p. 191)

Although its range has contracted dramatically within recent years, at the times the eyewitness claims recounted below were made, Hong Kong was well within the range of this species, and its arrival in the colony poses no theoretical problem for the zoologist. Even now, large areas of Hong Kong - both the mainland and on the Islands of Hong Kong and Lantau, are eminently suitable to support tigers, albeit for a short time. Guggisberg`s description of the habitat needs of P.t.amoyensis will be instantly recognisable to anyone familiar with the topography of the wilder parts of the territory:

"Chinese Tigers mainly lived in grass thickets, oak and poplar forests, but they were also encountered in bare, rocky mountain areas especially on the coast opposite to the island of Amoy (now XIAMEN), where they often took shelter in caves" (p.195).

G.A.K.Herklots was probably the greatest single naturalist ever to work with the wildlife of Hong Kong. In 1951 he wrote:

"Nearly every winter one or more tigers visit the New Territories; often the visitor is a tigress with or without cubs. The visit rarely lasts more than two or three days. A tiger thinks nothing of a 40 mile walk and in a couple of nights could walk from the wild country behind Bias Bay to Tai Mo Shan or the Kowloon Hills. Because their visits are usually of such short duration and because most people exaggerate, little credence is given to tiger rumours. Most that I have investigated have been founded on fact!"

In `The Hong Kong Countryside`. (1951) Herklots wrote:

"In 1915, a tiger was shot by Mr. Burlingham A.S.P. in the New Territories, but only after it had killed Sergeant Groucher, and I believe it was reported to have visited both Hong Kong and Lan Tau island (sic) in its wanderings."

`The Hong Kong book of Records` (1979), an amusing miscellany of facts and figures, compiled by someone using the pen name `Thagorus`, also contains an account of the 1915 incident:

"Tigers are great wanderers and have visited Hong Kong on a number of occasions. The first recorded incident of a tiger being killed in the territory occurred on the 8th March 1915. the animal concerned was reported to have visited Hong Kong Island and Lantau island in its roamings. Early in 1915, the spoor of the tiger was seen in that stretch of country between Fanling and Sheung Shui. After reporting that the animal had attacked two Chinese villagers, Sergeant Goucher and Constable Hollands set out to track down the beast. However, the tiger sprung upon Sergeant Goucher who suffered injuries from which he died three days later. During the affray another police party under the Assistant Superintendant of Police Mr Burlingham, came to deal with the matter. The beast responded by attacking and fatally mauling an Indian Constable, Rutton Singh. Eventually the tiger was dispatched after being repeatedly shot.

The animal measured eight feet, six inches from tip to tip, was three feet, four inches high, had a girth of three feet and seven inches and weighed 289 pounds. Its tail was three feet, one inch long.

The head of the beast was mounted and is now to be found above the main archway in the entrance lobby of the Central Police Station".

These dimensions are well within those given by Guggisberg (1975), for the Chinese Tiger:

"Of Chinese Tigers, only very few reliable measurements are available. Swinhoe reported a specimen with a head and body length of 1.62 m (5 feet), a tail of 76.2 cm (30 inches), and a weight of 149.6 kg (329 lbs). Pocock examined a number of skins exported from Shanghai and found the largest - which has obviously been stretched considerably in pegging out - to measure 2.97 m (10 feet). An American sportsman, J.C.Grew, shot a tiger on the mainland opposite Amoy, (now XIAMEN) the fresh skin of which measured 3.20 m (10 feet). (The actual length of the animal may have been 30 cms (18 inches) less, but from what the locals had to say, it was a big specimen for the area)".

"Sheung Shui Tiger" shot by Donald Burlingham in 1915

Comparing the surviving photograph of the dead beast with current descriptions of P.t.amoyensis is a little more problematical. The description given by Guggisberg is straightforward enough:

"The eastern Chinese sub-species (of the Tiger) is smaller than the Bengal Tiger, with the white areas less extensive and the black stripes broad, short, less numerous and more widely spaced ...". (p.184)

The morphology of the 1915 specimen does not appear to be any different from photographs of Bengal Tigers in several publications that I consulted, and therefore, whereas, its geographical position implies that the 1915 animal was of the subspecies amoyensis I can find no reason within its apparent morphology to support or disprove this claim.

A third account of the 1915 incident was written by Sayer (1975):

"For some weeks reports of strange pug marks, both on the mainland and even on the island were the talk of the town, and these reports were followed by accounts of eye-witnesses (including some of impeccable respectability), who claim to have seen a great striped body. The town remained sceptical and incredulous, for even allowing the possibility of the neighbouring province nourishing an odd example, the Colony was surely hardly large enough to swing a cat, let alone a tiger! But early in the month of March came the unexpected news from Sheung Shui in the New Territories that a tiger had indeed been located and had already killed a Chinese and dealt a fatal blow at a European Police Sergeant. All doubts and alarms were finally set at rest when, at the cost of yet another policeman`s life, the great body, shot by a hastily organised party, was brought in triumph to the City Hall".

There are a number of discrepancies between these three accounts. Although all three sources agree on the date and location, and it is perhaps unrealistic to expect zoological details to have survived for nearly a century, the third item of human interest; the number of people killed by the beast differs from account to account.

Herklots lists the fatalities as Sgt. GROUCHER, and two un-named Indian Constables. `Thagorus`, lists Sgt. GOUCHER, (a small, but possibly significant difference in name), and one Indian Constable, the unfortunate Rutton Singh. This account mentions that two unnamed Chinese villagers were attacked, but presumably if they had been killed by the tiger, `Thagorus' would have mentioned the fact. Sayer, whose book is by far the most scholarly of the three, and on first impressions provides the most impressive item on presentation value at least, presents yet another story. His fatalities are two unnamed policemen, presumably GOUCHER/GROUCHER and Singh and an unnamed Chinese person. It is the first we have heard of this fatality. It may seem that we are being overly zealous in our investigation of this incident, but as will be seen shortly, the veracity of at least one of these three writers has to be considered in some depth.

A fourth account of this incident is found in a reprint of an article from The Hongkong Telegraph, dated March 8th 1915. This time, the accounts are significantly different:

"In Sheung Shui, this morning, the villagers having complained to the police of the presence of a tiger in the locality, P.C.Croucher and the constable .... went out to investigate the complaint ... A coolie standing close by carelessly threw a stone into the bush .... a monster tiger, likened to the size of a pony, sprang from the bush, caught P.C.Croucher in his claws, and though the constable is some six foot in height, and turns the scale at fifteen stone - it tossed him about like a shuttlecock. His friend went to his assistance and .... fired two shots .... One of the shots is supposed to have struck the tiger and he dashed back into the bush, but not before he had torn four holes in the back and one in the shoulder of the constable, severely lacerating his body all down one side".

Window magazine on June 7th 1996, who reprinted this article went on to note:

"No longer a rumour but a most unpleasant encounter. Constable Croucher survived. An armed party took up the chase the following morning and killed the tiger, but not before it had succeeded in killing an Indian Constable..."

A fifth account of the incident apeared in the Hong Kong Police Magazine for March 1952. This quotes the South China Morning Post for the 9th March 1915. The account is substantially the same as that given by `Thagorus` and again calls the Sergeat GOUCHER. Unlike `Thagorus` it makes no mention of him having been killed, and even claims that Singh and GOUCHER/CROUCHER/GROUCHER were attacked in two different incidents.

So. Where does one go from here. We have five different accounts of the incident, each telling a significantly different story. The English policeman has three different names and two different ranks. Some accounts claim that he eventually died of his wounds and others claim that he survived. One account claims that two unnamed coolies were also killed, but other accounts ignore them completely. As "Alice" is said to have said after first hearing the poem "Jabberwocky", it is clear that someone killed something, (or in this case the other way around) but the details remain obscure. When one considers that this incident has, in recent years at least, been the most well documented of the Hong Kong tiger incidents then one begins to realise that researching this book was not as easy as it might at first have appeared.

A sixth account of the 1915 incident appears in the article about the 1966 Shing Mun Tiger `flap`, which I quoted at the beginning of this article:

"Tigers are always appearing in Hong Kong, writes John Luff. Never a year passes but at some time a posse of policemen augmented by a troop of soldiers makes for the hills of the New Territories, urged on by the vague instructions of a villager who is certain he saw `one piece plenty big tiger`.

The fact that the tiger hunt turns out almost always to be a wild goose chase is beside the point. For exactly fifty years ago a villager reported to the police station saying that a huge tiger was lurking in a patch of scrub. So, the police went to see, arming themselves with only light revolvers. And when they asked where the tiger was, the villager said `over there`, and threw a stone into a clump of bushes. At which a very angry tiger hurled himself upon a police sergeant, and when an Indian constable went to help the sergeant the tiger stuck him down too. It started as a joke and ended in tragedy. The head of the tiger, moth eaten and toothless, ornaments the Central Police Station in the capital Victoria.

So, for obvious reasons the reports of the villagers in the colony`s New Territory`s have to be taken seriously"...

This account contains more detail than the other ones quoted above and it is tempting to speculate, either that the anonymous author, (the mysterious John Luff?), had access to source material that we have not yet been able to identify, possibly even an interview with one of the surviving principals, or he made the extra details up in the interests of a good story. Either is possible, and at the time of writing the jury is still out on the matter.

A 1925 account of the incident which appeared in The Overland China Mail shows that the confusion about the incident existed even seventy two years before this present volume was written, and even casts doubt upon the provenance of the head which for so many years was exhibited above the door of the Central Police Station, and which even as recently as 1993 resided in the Police Museum on Stubbs Rd. (The head is still in the Police Museum, ed.)

`Hong Kong and Macao - the rough guide` by Jules Brown and Helen Lee (Rough Guides, London 1993) p.82

"There is nothing improbable in the story of its presence there for those residents who were in the colony a few years ago will remember the body of the tiger shot by Mr D Burlingham in the New Territories, being carried in the streets. A cast of the impression of another tiger`s `pugs` was also exhibited in the window of Messrs Lane, Crawford Ltd. There would appear to be a good deal of haziness in the minds of those who remember seeing the tiger which was actually shot in the New Territories as to what happened to it. Several statements were made most definitely to a China Mail representative this morning by people who should have known. "It`s in the museum here" was one. "It was skinned and made into a rug and was either given to Sir Henry May who was Governor at the time, or is in the museum", said another. "The skin was taken off badly and had to be thrown away" was a third version. From an official source The China Mail learns that what actually happened was that the skin was sent home to be stuffed, the object being to have it placed in the museum here. On it`s way out in stuffed form, on a Japanese boat it was torpedoed and although all the passengers were saved, no-one seems to have remembered or cared enough about the tiger to rescue it from a watery grave.

If the above account is true, it means that all the other acounts aren`t, and it begs the question; Where, exactly, did the tiger head (still presumably) in Stubbs Road Police Museum come from?

At the beginning of the second world war, Winston Churchill described the Soviet Union as "A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma." Churchill could equally well have been describing an investigation into the accounts of tigers and other mystery cats from Hong Kong.

In my records I have well over a dozen fully documented accounts of tigers visiting Hong Kong and several other less tangible ones. The earliest reports are from the nineteenth century and the latest are several years later than the appearance of the Shing Mun beast (which seems, on the basis of the available evidence) to have been more akin to the classic zooform ABC sighting than anything else.

So where is the problem? How and why did the Fanling episode of the 8th March 1915 become so confused?

I believe that mankind needs monsters - they fulfill a primal purpose deep within the human psyche. However, when it is actually confronted with one it does not know how to deal with it. Even in 1915 when Hong Kong was far from being the urbanised centre of commerce that it is today, it considered itself to be a sophisticated metropolitan centre. The idea that it could harbour dangerous wild animals capable of killing anyone - let alone a respected member of His Majesty`s forces was too much to deal with and so the whole affair was slowly consigned to legend and the unfortunate sergeant Goucher/Groucher or whatever his name was, achieved a degree of immortality that he would undoubtedly never have achieved if he had lived to a ripe old age, and died in retirement somewhere on the south coast of England.

Strange old world isn`t it?

P.6-7

   

 

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