Hong Kong (CNN)In 1929, two Chinese farmers were stopped by a British police officer while ambling down a road in a rugged part of Hong Kong's then-expansive rural hinterland.
They weren't committing a crime: they were carrying a caged tiger.
"As it is quite unusual to see a live tiger carried about in the New Territories the police officer was curious to know where it came from," said a front-page report in the Hong Kong Telegraph on October 28 that year.
Two days earlier, the men realized a deer trap they had set 400 yards (365 meters) from their village had gone missing. They followed tracks etched in the dirt where it had been dragged to a pit -- inside, they discovered a wounded tiger, the jaws of the metal snare biting into its leg.
Police sent the tiger to a Hong Kong amusement park, where it died shortly after. A policeman became the "proud possessor of the skin," according to a later news report.
"That story makes you wonder how many tigers were being carried around by locals that we never heard about," says John Saeki, a journalist who is researching a book about tigers in Hong Kong.
In the early 1900s, zoologists -- and the public -- were skeptical that wild tigers existed in Hong Kong, despite repeated incidents. Saeki has found hundreds of mentions of tiger sightings and big cat encounters in local newspapers, from the 1920s to as recently as the 1960s -- although some might have been sightings of the same tiger, while others were not verified to be more than a rumor.
There was the 1911 tiger which swam out to Hong Kong's outlying island of Lamma and feasted on cattle. The tiger in 1916 whose roar terrified commuters on the Peak Tram. And the 1937 big cat who ate a woman whole, leaving just her blood stains on the mountainside.
In 1914, after a tiger left paw prints within 10 yards of Chief Justice Sir William Rees-Davies house, in the upscale Peak neighborhood, a local newspaper wrote: "He had always been incredulous of tiger visit stories -- but this morning here was nothing left to doubt."
So how could tiger sightings be real when big cats didn't live in Hong Kong?
Saeki explains that political turmoil in mainland China in the first half of the 20th century made food harder to find for the South China tiger.
About 20,000 of the diminutive cats, the smallest of the tiger species, roamed the mostly rural mountains of southern China during that period. Some would slink over the border to feast on farmers' cattle and boar in Hong Kong, before slipping back over the hills to the north -- occasionally feasting on a human, rather than an animal.
The South China tiger
The tiger is a potent symbol in Chinese culture. In traditional Chinese medicine, tiger-penis soup has for centuries been consumed by men to increase sexual virility. Tiger-bone wine is believed to cure rheumatism, weakness, or paralysis. And tiger whiskers were once used for toothaches, eyeballs for epilepsy -- the list goes on.
The white tiger is one of the four sacred animals of the Chinese constellation. And those born in the year of the tiger are thought to be brave, strong, and sympathetic.
But on a practical level, these majestic big cats have for centuries preyed on humans in China.
More than 10,000 people were killed or injured by tigers in four provinces of South China -- Fujian, Jiangxi, Hunan, and Guangdong -- between the years 48 A.D. to 1953, according to gazetteer records in the Ancient Books Collection at Fujian Normal University, analyzed by Chris Coggins in his 2003 book "The Tiger and the Pangolin: Nature, Culture and Conservation in China."
He says that figure is conservative because 395 records did not specify the numbers of casualties -- just that at least one attack had occurred. Tiger encounters featured more regularly in records than those by Asiatic black bears, wolves, red dogs, or wild boar, Coggins writes, and were predominantly South China tigers. Small numbers of Siberian and Bengal tigers still live in other pockets of China, but it was the South China tiger that encountered humans south of the Yangtze River.
In the early 20th century, when American Methodist Harry Caldwell turned up in southern China on a mission to spread Christianity, he chanced on a near-foolproof way to convert villagers into Christians -- he taught them how to kill tigers. In his memoir "Blue Tiger," Caldwell describes how, in April 1910, he shot dead a big cat that had just killed a 16-year-old Chinese boy. "The killing of that beast turned almost an entire village Christian," he wrote. The Chinese, as he tells it, were fascinated by his American gun.
Any God that made such a machine, he convinced them, was one they should worship.
In his book, Caldwell tells of villages under siege from big cats across southern China. Fuqing, a coastal community in Fujian province, was the heart of South China tiger country. In this village -- which is now a city -- Caldwell describes how every person bolted their gate at night, and protectively brought their precious cattle, pigs and water buffalo into the inner courtyards of their homes, petrified of nightly tiger attacks.
"Men tending their herds or walking along the trails disappeared, or were found mangled and half eaten. Crops were going untended; paralysis began to settle on the hills ... People were afraid to stir from their houses," wrote Harry's son, John Caldwell, in a 1953 book about his father's life.
Harry Caldwell boasted of killing nearly 50 of the South China tigers that had stalked a vast area south of the Yangtze River for centuries, as he pushed religion with his rifle.
Caldwell's tiger hunting went unchecked, as did that of British trophy hunters such as William Lord Smith, who recounted his tales in the 1920 book "The Cave Tiger of China."
While men with guns hunted cats, the locals continued to encroach on the animals' natural habitat, coming into conflict with them and eating their traditional prey, as political turmoil drove people farther into the countryside. As a result, the population of the South China tiger dwindled from about 20,000 in 1905 to just 4,000 by early 1950s.
When the Communist Party of China came to power in 1949, things didn't get better, with Chairman Mao Zedong taking aim at animals deemed to be pests such as tigers, says Saeki. "There was a concerted campaign to wipe them out," he adds.
Coggins writes that animals that attacked livestock, ate crops, or spread disease were seen as an obstacle to progress. "Large livestock predators, such as tigers (which have a colorful history of dining on people in southern China) and wolves, were attacked systematically. Animals that posed a threat to grain crops were trapped, shot, and poisoned by the thousands," Coggins writes.