Preserving Korea’s fierce heritageIt was June 1824. Sunjo was king of the Joseon Dynasty. A vicious tiger came into the house of Kim Gwang-jae, a military official at a government office in Anbyeon, Hamgyeong Province. When the tiger caught Kim Gwang-jae in its teeth and tried to drag him out, Kim’s wife, Cho, who was over 60 years old, held onto her husband and would not let go. She said, “Take me instead of my husband,” and threw herself in front of the tiger. The tiger took her instead.
The governor of Hamgyeong notified the royal court, and the Office of Protocol built the Gate of the Virtuous Woman dedicated to Cho.
Even worse damage was caused by tigers when Yeongjo was king of Joseon. “The Annals of the Joseon Dynasty” show that around 140 people lost their lives to tigers in the summer and fall in 1734, the 10th year of Yeongjo. In spring of the next year, around 40 people were killed by tigers in Yeongdong, Gangwon Province. In 1752, the 28th year of Yeongjo, a tiger not only entered the capital city of Seoul, but even got into the backyard of Gyeongbok Palace.
The fearsome Korean tigers disappeared during Japanese rule, when people hunted them extensively. The tiger killed in Mount Daedeok, North Gyeongsang Province, in 1922 was the last tiger in South Korea. Apparently there are still tigers in the northern alpine regions of North Korea, but even there, there may be fewer than 10.
Tigers are an internationally endangered species. Of the eight subspecies of tigers, Caspian tigers, Bali tigers and Javan tigers went extinct in the 20th century. No South China tigers have been spotted, either, since 1983. Only around 1,500 Bengal tigers and Indochina tigers and 400 to 500 Sumatra tigers remain.
They say around 500 Korean tigers, known as Siberian tigers, remain in the Russian wilderness, and around 400 are in Russian zoos. There are around 900 tigers in Chinese zoos, but only 20 in the wild.
At the Joint Committee on Environmental Cooperation meeting between Korea and Russia at the end of last month, the Ministry of Environment requested that Russia send us three Korean tigers. There are more than 20 Korean tigers in Korean zoos, including the Seoul Zoo in Gwacheon, and all have been imported from countries like the United States and China and bred, but most are cousins or second cousins. Tigers with genetic diseases like cataracts or bad vision are becoming frequent after repeated inbreeding.
Professor Hwang Woo-suk once attempted to clone Korean tigers, but failed. Even if he had succeeded, they would not have been more than “living stuffed specimens” with the same genes. Reconnecting tigers to their genetic community is a top priority to maintain the health of Korean tigers. If this is difficult, we should focus on international cooperation to exchange genes.
The writer is a reporter specializing in environmental issues.
By Kang Chan-soo