BEIJING — The photos of the South China tiger taken by a farmer seemed too good to be true. After all, no member of the endangered big cat family had been seen in the wild since the 1960s.
This weekend, local authorities revealed after months of delay that the pictures had been staged using a poster cutout. Police also produced a paw made of wood they said had been used to make prints in the snow.
Zhou Zhenglong, 54, a farmer and local guide who took the photographs, was arrested Saturday on suspicion of fraud. And 13 officials in Shaanxi province in central China have been fired or disciplined, the government announced Sunday.
The revelations in the "paper tiger" case were driven by persistent Internet activists who demanded answers from Zhou and local officials. The case has also spurred a heated debate over cover-ups, culpability and corruption, as well as whether Zhou was forced to take the fall for powerful officials.
Zhou was paid $2,915 for the photographs by the local forestry department, which was reportedly trying to start a nature reserve, seeking over $1 million from Beijing in funding and pushing to boost tourism. Zhou, who had acted as a guide for animal protection officials, had originally been led to believe the photos might be worth as much as $140,000.
"It took nine months for the government to come up with some answers amid all the vested interests," said Hou Jingsong, a legal activist whose group tried repeatedly to file suit only to see its petitions rejected by Chinese courts. "Zhou is a scapegoat, one of the weakest players on the chessboard."
The tale of the tiger started in October when local forestry officials in Shaanxi province held a news conference and released what they said was a photo of the rare tiger. The photo shows the animal facing the camera, its mouth slightly open, peeking out from a tangle of leaves.
But the announcement was immediately greeted with much skepticism. An estimated 4,000 South China tigers were said to have been alive at the middle of the last century. However, a shrinking habitat and a 1950s "anti-pest" campaign took their toll, with the last wild sighting reported in 1964 in Shaanxi's Qinba mountains. By 1996, only 30 to 80 remained in the wild, the International Union for Conservation of Nature estimated. Today, several remain in zoos, but inbreeding has left them with limited genetic diversity.
In the Zhou case, an Internet sleuth suspicious of the October announcement traced one of the pictures to a 2002 Chinese New Year poster. Much online discussion focused on the strange lighting, the tiger's unrealistic coloring and features that didn't seem to change from shot to shot.
"This wild South China tiger is very obedient because it maintains the same posture while keeping that highly controversial leaf right over its head all the time," said a blogger named "Pro States In Flames."
The public suspicion led to strong denials of any wrongdoing by Zhou and local officials. "I am willing to guarantee the authenticity of this photograph with my head," local Animal Protection Bureau director Wang Wanyun reportedly said.
But public doubts persisted, leading the state forestry administration in December to promise an investigation. Two months later, the agency apologized, but stopped short of characterizing the 71 photographs as fakes, a step it finally took Sunday.
"Our civic society is growing up and starting to have influence," said Sun Guoyu, a blogger and editor of oeeee.com. "This is progress."
Zhou told reporters shortly after the pictures surfaced that he hid in the grass with his camera and took several pictures when the tiger appeared near a cave. But at some point it got scared by the flash and roared, he reportedly said, forcing him to retreat behind a rock. After a few minutes of terror, he looked out again and the tiger was gone.
State media this week had another version: that he'd borrowed a digital camera and a poster from a friend, cut out the tiger image and gone up to the Madaozi forest, where he found a clearing and clicked away. "It is a small area with few tall trees," Bai Shaokang, a Shaanxi province police spokesman, told reporters Sunday, "not a suitable habitat for a tiger."
Many observers appeared to believe that Zhou was encouraged, if not directed, by local officials. One Internet poll of 64,000 respondents by QQ, a news portal, found that more than 86% believed he was a scapegoat. "Zhou is just one of the actors in this absurd play," said a posting Monday on Sohu, another Web portal. "He is neither the director nor the playwright."
The case has also raised questions about the lengths people will go in rapidly developing China to get ahead.
"Traditionally in Chinese culture, people came first," said Xia Xueluan, a sociology professor at Peking University. "Today, most people are driven by money first, as we see here in this attempt to cheat 1.3 billion people."
Local officials said this week that they were reflecting on their mistakes.
Gao Wenhuan in The Times' Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.