The South China Tiger is listed as Critically Endangered (Possibly Extinct in the Wild). On the balance of evidence, the taxon appears to the Extinct in the Wild, but there is a small chance that some individuals are still extant. While extensive surveys have failed to yield verifiable evidence of tigers, surveys have not been exhaustive across the entire historic range (IUCN 2001) (which originally covered 16 counties, although it is considered definitely extirpated in 12: Wozencraft et al. 2008). There are still occasional unconfirmed reports of wild South China Tigers, although continued survival is considered unlikely due to low prey density, widespread habitat degradation and fragmentation, and other human pressures. No official or biologist has seen a wild South China Tiger since the early 1970s, when the last verified record is of an animal brought into captivity (Tilson et al. 1997). Programs to reintroduce tigers to southern China have been started.
In the 1950s, the South China Tiger population was estimated at over 4,000. Large scale tiger eradication campaigns combined with extensive habitat loss reduced the tiger population considerably over the next few decades, and it came under special protection in the 1970s. However, by 1982 only an estimated 150-200 remained (Lu and Sheng 1986). Ten years later, tiger tracks and scrapes were found in 11 reserves in the mountains of Fujian, Hunan and Guangdong provinces, but these data were insufficient to estimate population size (Anonymous 1991, Koehler 1991, Gui and Meng 1993 in Tilson et al. 1997). However, ten years after that, transect and camera trap surveys in eight reserves in five provinces (also including Zhejiang and Jianxi provinces) failed to turn up any verifiable evidence for tiger persistence (Tilson et al. 2004). Tiger prey densities were also very low, and habitat degradation and fragmentation were high. However, other surveys suggest that there may still be some surviving South China Tigers in the wild, with reports of tracks and local people sightings from Qizimei Mountains Nature Reserve, Hubei (Liu et al. 2002) and in Yihuang county, Jiangxi (Liu and Peng 2005), although Huang et al. (2003) found no evidence there during their 2001 survey.
Tilson et al. (2004) concluded that no viable wild populations remain, and the Government of China agrees that there is no confirmed presence (GTF 2007) and has declared the goal to reintroduce South China Tigers to the wild (Breitenmoser et al. 2006). To accomplish this, the State Forestry Administration (SFA) is supporting two parallel programs. The first, developed in close co-operation with a UK-based nongovernmental organization Save China’s Tigers, was officially approved in 2005 by SFA to commence at two sites, Zixi in Jiangxi Province and Liuyang in Hunan Province. One major concern among the international conservation community has been the use of an unorthodox methodology: captive-bred South China Tigers were sent to private reserves in South Africa (where tigers are not a native species) to learn to hunt wild prey. Other major constraints include the lack of genetic diversity and purity of the small captive population, lack of suitable habitat and wild prey base in China, and the small size of the proposed reintroduction areas (Anonymous 2003, Wang et al. 2005, Breitenmoser et al. 2006). The second, developed in cooperation with the South China Tiger Advisory Office (SCTAO), is a longer-term effort to recover wild populations of south China Tigers and recognizes the need for recovery sites of much greater size to support future long-term viable wild populations of tigers. In 2006 a Memorandum of Understanding was signed between the SFA and SCTAO to support these efforts (P. Nyhus pers. comm. 2008). Cooperative field surveys and workshops have been carried out to identify suitable recovery areas (Breitenmoser et al. 2006).
In 2005, the captive population of South China Tigers consisted of 57 individuals descended from six founders and showed signs of inbreeding, including reduced genetic diversity and a low rate of successful breeding (Tilson et al. 1997, Wang et al. 2005). Few seem to be "pure" South China Tigers as there is genetic evidence of cross-breeding with other subspecies (Guo 2007). Luo et al. (2008) give the global captive population at 72 in 2007; there are few captive South China Tigers outside China (P. Nyhus pers. comm. 2008).