Animals Korean tiger

Published on November 24th, 2008 | by Gavin Hudson


Korean Tigers Back from the Brink of Extinction, but Not in South Korea

“Long ago, when tigers smoked long pipes… ” begin folk tales in South Korea. The stories recall a time at the farthest reaches of living memory when Korean tigers, the world’s largest cats, still prowled the Korean peninsula.

Siberian tiger / Amur tiger / Korean tigerKorea’s national creation myth also tells of a tiger and a bear who asked the son of the ruler of Heaven if he would make them human. He agreed, but only if they could endure 100 days in a cave eating nothing but garlic and mugwort. The steadfast bear endured and became a beautiful woman, who gave birth to Tangun, the legendary father of Korea in 2333 BCE. But the tiger grew hungry and impatient. He left the cave early, unable cope with the hunger and waiting, and has been slinking through the Korean mountains ever since.

That is, until the last century when hunting and habitat loss pushed the Korean tiger over the brink of extinction in the wild in South Korea. With it went an important symbol of Korea’s identity.


“Korea is the only country where the tiger is the centre of its culture,” says Korean artist, Cho Hyun-Kwon. “The people feel very close to the tiger and has personified it throughout history.”

Tragically, the death of Korea’s last wild tiger foreshadowed the end of Korea’s unity. During the tumult of the Japanese occupation, just before the nation was torn in two at the end of the Korean War, the last Korean tiger faded quietly into folklore.

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.

Amur tiger current population mapThe Korean tiger is the largest tiger subspecies in the world, and the largest living cat aside from the man-made liger. But today, the Korean tiger goes by a different name. It has become better known as the Siberian or Amur tiger since none survive in the South Korean wild and few if any are thought to exist in the most remote North Korean mountains, as shown in the map (left). All the same, a sliver of hope still remains for this mighty tiger subspecies.

Half a century ago, the population of wild Korean, or Amur, tigers dipped to the brink of extinction at a mere 40 animals. Luckily, the survivors possessed enough genetic variety to make a population comeback possible. Their numbers are up substantially now thanks to conservation efforts, largely in Russia. Current estimates place the wild population at 431 to 529 individuals, virtually all living between the far eastern Russian regions of Khabarovsk and Primorsky, which border China and North Korea. It’s a potential conservation success story, but the fate of the world’s largest tiger is still far from certain.

“Wherever people and large carnivores coexist, conflicts between the two are usually inevitable,” says the Wildlife Conservation Society, which has been working in Russia to bring this tiger species back from the brink. “This lesson applies to Amur tigers in the Russian Far East.  Livestock depredations and attacks on people, although exceedingly rare, impede conservation efforts. Traditionally, such conflicts were usually resolved by simply killing the tiger. Cumulatively, such deaths represent a significant mortality factor for small populations of endangered species. We have been working closely with a special branch of the Russian government to address such situations and resolve them to protect both the tiger as well as human life and livelihood. If Amur tigers are to survive in the wild, they must coexist with people.”

In South Korea, the folk tales that stir memories of the country’s native tiger also remind listeners of the constant conflict between tigers and humans. In the stories, the tiger, while often gullible, is nevertheless a terrifying and sometimes deceitful beast. But one tale is different. It tells of how the uneasy relationship between tigers and humans was successfully resolved by a change in the way people view tigers.

In the story, when a terrified woodsman is ambushed by a ferocious tiger, the woodsman cleverly bows low to the animal and claims him as a long-lost brother. Confused and touched by the man’s respect and lack of fear, the tiger believes the man. He agrees not only to spare the man’s life, but also to help him to hunt for food from that day on.

This tale may illustrate an oversimplified solution to problem. But today, it is respect–rather than fear or hatred–that conservationists hope will keep the world’s largest tiger on the path to survival.

Resources for bringing the critically endangered Korean, or Amur, tiger back from the brink of extinction

Image credit: Tambako the Jaguar via Flickr, under a Creative Commons license.

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About the Author

Gavin blogs from Zurich, Switzerland. His day job is Digital Media Communications Manager for ABB. Previously, he lived and worked in South Korea, blogging, editing and freelance writing for Green Options and PV Magazine. Gavin's favorite environmental work has included: co-founding the grassroots Nature Conservation Club at about age 8; interning for the Jane Goodall Insitute's Roots & Shoots (R&S) program; representing R&S at the World Social Forum VI in Caracas, Venezuela; volunteering at the Marine Mammal Center of Sausalito; being a research assistant for a CAL lab studying climate change in Colorado; bicycling lots.

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  • sm hudson

    A bit mean of the son of the ruler of heaven to subject the tiger to a vegetarian diet. No problem for the bear (an omnivore). Nevertheless, this is a fascinating story which illustrates the age old struggle of mankind to reconcile our place in the natural world.

  • Matt Eastwood

    “If Amur tigers are to survive in the wild, they must coexist with people.” – it is this attitude that really bugs me.
    Surely it should read – “If Amur tigers are to survive in the wild, people must coexist with the tigers”.
    People can live and survive anywhere on the planet – they also have governments that should be protecting them, however this tiger – of which there are only 450 as opposed to the 5 billion people on earth lives in a very small area and still must coeixt with humans. It’s disgraceful. If only tigers could build cities, chop wood and shoot eachother.

  • Matt, that’s an interesting insight.

  • sm hudson

    I must return to this article to express my pleasure in reading it. The inclusion of the mythology of the Korean people beautifully illustrated the juxtaposition of people’s admiration and longing to have this “beast” among them with their fear of encounter with him. The writing brought me to a place where I could imagine myself walking in that land, seeing the mists and shadows, both fearing and longing to know the tiger lay in those shadows watching me. The article perfectly illustrated mankind’s struggle of concience between our need for our own comfort and safety and the knowledge that we must also find a way to preserve the habitat of all the other beings necessary for the balance of our natural world.

  • This article is another lie about korea.Come here and see what the Hankooks really believe about animals in them kick cats & dogs that they see in the streets.Then Go & have a nice bowl of dog or cat soup.The forests are devoid of just about any kind of living animal as they eat everything that crawls or flys. When you watch the korean tv shows you will see such insanity about animals in the korean society at large.They are nothing but play things to them..

    • Mike’s never been to Korea

  • Mike,

    I’m the author of this piece, and I live in Korea. Clearly, somewhere along the line you’ve seen some Korean people acting differently than you find acceptable. However, because you personally may not find it acceptable doesn’t necessarily make it wrong. More importantly, seeing one or several people acting in a certain way doesn’t mean that everyone in that country behaves similarly.

    It is true that a certain breed of dog is used for meat in Korea. It’s also true that some people (myself included) view the method of killing these dogs as inhumane. However, this practice is fading. I know some Koreans who are as appalled at Canada’s seal hunting as some Canadians (and Americans) are at the vanishing tradition of dog meat. Koreans do not eat cats.

    I also find that pets tend seem to be treated differently in Korea than they are in North America. The reason for this, according to one very well traveled and well educated Korean acquaintance of mine, is that pets are a relatively new phenomenon in South Korea. It’s only in recent decades that the country’s been wealthy enough to support them. Now that the country’s pretty wealthy, lots of people own dogs. Hamsters are also common and there are some fish, birds, a few cats and even some hedgehogs. Similar to the US, many little kids beg their parents for pet dogs. However, in Korea, dogs tend to live in small dog houses in front of the house. Dogs here tend not to get as much social interaction with people and dog walking is uncommon.

    On one of your other points, the forests in Korea are plentiful as are the urban parks. For instance, the park behind my house, though very small, has abundant birds, insects, small mammals, some reptiles and even has occasional large mammals like deer.

    Koreans do not eat anything that crawls or flies. There are two species of insect eaten in Korea: grasshoppers and silk worms. But think of the weird things eaten in Europe and North America: snails, frog legs and mouldy, curdled milk (ie. the ‘finer’ cheeses we westerners love).

  • W E Stewart

    I was in Korea in the fifties, and I can tell you from my experiences that Koreans on the average, were excited by the prospect of having a pet. I lived in a house owned by a man who worked in a Bank in E Ta Won.The house was located up past the old fire station on the right , towards Ham lam Dong. This man was friend of mine and I helped him build this house. I designed it, and provided the necessary electrical and plumbing fixtures for it. I was going to share half the house, and for this I was to live rent free for as long as I was in Korea.
    People, you have to understand that we did things differently back then. I had a friend that was going to the States for vacation and would return in about thirty days. He was a civilian pilot be flying on Military aircraft. I told him bring back a couple of boxer pups, from diffent litters, a male and female and we would start a new fade. Well here he comes one day with not two pups but, four! Two boxers and two tiny poodles. What a hit they made. The Koreans were estatic. The wives of some of these men were plotting and scheming to get a puppy. Well, these dogs had to grow up to mature for breeding. We managed to keep them un-pregant for a whole year. Then the girls and boys went into action. The puppies were born, five Boxers and four Poodles. We had 9 people, some couples and a couple singles, I counted the couples as singles. Six months go by and more puppies on the docket, well you can tell that after two years we had a going concern. I had managed to get a couple more German Shepards in country and that was the worst thing I ever did. People were fighting over them. Parakeets were another wildly popular pet. I can say very proudly that I helped bring much happiness to many a Korean family. They hungered for pets for themselves and their children.
    We went back in 1970 and stayed another five years and my wife took two young puppies in her purse and bottle fed them the whole way on North West Orient airlines. Walked right thru customs, never batted an eye, cool woman with the big purse. Our youngest son was five years old and he almost gave it away. But the glare from his mothers eyes soon cooled his tongue.
    One day in 1958 I was standing in an alley that led up to the top of E Tae Won, right between the old drug store and the little chinese restaurant. E Tae Won was off limits to soldiers and it didn’t pay even for civilians to be seen there by the MP’s. I was talking with a National Policemen when this man walked up with a young dog under his arm and a long knife in his right hand. We gabbed for a minute and I dertermined that he was going to kill the poor thing and have it for supper. I asked him how much he paid for it and then I offered him double. Took the doggy and he became a mascot for us. It’s hell out there in the world for some folks and it’s really hell out there for the animals, becasue of some folks!

  • tellos

    Nice story thanks

  • Gavin how can some animals look so nice,but be so mean?

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  • john

    I happen to know for a fact, that there are still tigers living in S. Korea. I saw one with my own eyes. I know it sounds crazy, but it was there, and wouldn’t let us accomplish our mission.

    • Bill Fisher

      I was in 1/72nd tank in Korea in 1976. At that time there was a pretty widespread rumor that a ROK infantry regiment had been deployed in the mountans to deal out a maneater a horangie or tiger.

      • Bill Fisher

        Where and when did this occurr?
        I’m 70 years old and have done a lot of hunting. I started learning to track in Alaska
        at age seven taught by an Alaska scout, an Aleut esquimo. I’v lived in Europe, Asia and North America. I’ve seen big cat tracks in some very odd places. and do not doubt your word. They don’t ever let you see them unless they want to. I firmly believe there are many more than even most woodsmen think. They are just very secretive, and becoming more so every day with habitat loss and human population growth. e mail me.
        Best to you,

    • kim

      u saw a tiger in the wild in s.korea? please elaborate, i just drove thru th whole country, its relly quite beautiful, it would be a great shame for mammals sush as tiers and bears not living in this wonderous land

      • Gavin Hudson

        Hi Kim, No I have never seen a tiger in Korea. As I mentioned in the article, they are locally extinct on the Korean peninsula, at least in South Korea. Glad you enjoyed driving through Korea!

    • John S.

      I agree with John. I was there in ’93-94 and although I never saw one with my own eyes, I saw lots of evidence in the wild; tracks, shredded trees and remains of eaten wildlife. I saw many footprints in the dirt and shredded trees east of the Chinese tunnel. Tree shredding I was told by KATUSAs that this is how a tiger not only sharpens their claws but also marks territory. My KATUSA all had confirmed to me that there are tigers in Korea. When I tell them that the command and enviromentalist say they are all gone. All the KATUSAs would say “They Lie”.

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  • I was stationed at ferry site number 1 on the Imjim river in 1964. I was on duty about 2am and was moving a raft away from shore so it would not get grounded when the tide went out. Suddenly I heard a bun ch of roe deer running away from the river. I went up to the road that ran parallel to the river and climbed into a 2 and half ton truck. I turned the lights on to see the deer as they crossed the road. It was then when I saw it. The tiger stretched completely across the road. It must have been 8 feet long. I had always ridiculed the KATUSAs when they claimed to hear a tiger scream out at night. I thought tigers only lived in the jungle. I awakened the other soldiers and told them. There were 9 of us stationed at ferry site 1 . We slept north of the river in a concrete block building. When I told the old men who lived in the village of Imjim ni they confirmed that tigers existed in the spoonbill area and had observed them swimming the Imjim at night. The KATUSAs stationed at the ferry site were CPL Kim Ro Duk and PFC Choi Bong Won. Im sure they remember the incident.

  • Sammy

    Tigers don’t just live in jungles. They also live in the cold forests of the far east of russia and surrounding areas.

    • Sammy, I’ve seen them in the jungles of Vietnam and the DMZ of South Korea. I have first hand knowledge of their existance and not just heresay. You don’t have to tell me that they exist in Russia and the surrounding area. I said just that in my Feburary 2013 comment. The tiger I mentioned used tto rest near a giant chestnut tree that was located near the edge of a marked minefield about 200 meters north of the imjin river in the vicinity of Ferry Site one. Ferry site one was about one half mile east of the town of Imjin-ni on the Im jin river. I know this because the tiger used to shed its hair by rubbing against the tree and ,on occasion, would snag itself on the bobwire that surrounded the minefield.

  • Kathy A

    Thank you for a very interesting and informative thread. I’ve recently become a Kdrama fan. Watching these shows have opened up hundreds of questions I have about Korea. The more I learn, the more I’d love to visit. But due to age and health that will never happen. But sites like this one is the next best thing. Thank the good Lord for the internet.

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