The Blue or Maltese tiger is a quasi legendary resident of China’s Fujian province (not Malta, as you might have guessed). The word Maltese refers to the Tiger’s bluish coloring, since domestic cats with blue-grey fur are common on the European island. That, at least, is the best existing theory for why the word is used for the legendary Fujian Tiger.
Somewhat sadly, our main source for the legend is American missionary and avid tiger killer, Harry R. Cadwell, who lived in Fujian in the early 20th century—a real “he-man” in the words of his friend and fellow hunter, Roy Chapman Andrews, writing in the introduction to Cadwell’s book, Blue Tiger. Both men claim to have seen the tiger “at close range” and “unconcealed” on numerous occasions. They describe it thus: ‘‘the ground color of its body is Maltese, changing into light blue on the lower sides and belly. The stripes are black and well-defined like those on a yellow tiger.’’
He-man he may be: Captain Planet he is not. Caldwell’s story, published as Blue Tiger in 1924, is filled with condescending accounts of “half-naked natives” and English men who don pith-helmets at the slightest provocation—people drinking tea without milk and other such atrocities.
However, Cadwell gains prestige among the locals with his “tiger killing”. After hearing of the Maltese Tiger legend in 1910 he embarks upon the hunt for his blue trophy, which he says “has spread devastation among the peasant people” so much so that they call it “black devil” or “blue beard”.
The real question is not whether the Blue Tiger exists, to which the answer is probably no or at least not now—but do any tigers still survive in China’s southern provinces, their original habitat? They are not blue, but yellow, like their closest relatives in other countries. In the 1950s there were reportedly 4,000 Southern Tigers living wild in China. Following a well-know state initiative to rid the countryside of ‘pests’—with a little prior help from Cadwell—and the destruction of the tiger’s habitat, only an estimated 30-80 remained by 1996. Last seen in the wild 25 years ago, the Southern Tiger is now believed to be ‘functionally’ extinct, a thought that even Harry Cadwell may have found disturbing.
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