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Trapping tigers

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A pig sty or tiger trap in the far north, circa 1898. Robert Neff Collection
A pig sty or tiger trap in the far north, circa 1898. Robert Neff Collection

By Robert Neff

In 1910, Korean tiger stories were very popular in American newspapers. One newspaper reported,
"It appears that since the Japanese occupation of Korea, [Koreans] have been forbidden to carry firearms, and as a consequence, tigers have multiplied to an extraordinary extent. It is not safe to go out shopping after dusk in some of the inland villages, and as many as 30 or 40 luckless [Koreans] have been devoured in certain districts within a week."

Another article wryly noted, "The tiger is as much a master [in Korea] as the Japanese."

Without rifles, many Koreans ― especially those in the more desolate regions ― were forced to resort to old tiger traps (covered pits and sturdy log buildings with a falling door) baited with a dog or pig. But trapping tigers was not simple. With their exceptionally keen sense of smell and intelligence, tigers were often able to avoid the traps.

Some people even claimed tigers had supernatural intelligence and abilities and were able to hypnotize those who peered too long and deeply into their eyes.

Once a tiger was trapped, there was still the problem of killing it. Tigers were extremely valuable. If it was killed with swords and spears, the hide would be damaged and bring down its price. Poison was often used, but this contaminated the flesh and internal organs, thus ruining its medicinal properties. Sometimes, when only the pelt was needed or the only desire was for the tiger to be killed, the villagers would "take a little pig and painting it with a strong poison, tie it where the tiger [would] find and devour it."

Another method was to starve the great beast until it became so weak that it could be killed with blunt weapons. On April 18, 1929, 10 men, armed only with clubs, managed to beat a large tiger to death.

In the late 19th century, Horace Allen recalled buying tiger pelts for $10 but by 1905 the price was more than $100. As the number of tigers on the peninsula fell the price went up.

In 1935, Sten Bergman, a Swedish zoologist, wrote, "There is not much question, indeed, of tigers nowadays as they have been almost exterminated, but when a tiger does reach the market it is in demand medicinally; its flesh, entrails included, and bones are all in demand. A large tiger in its winter skin now fetches about 2,000 yen [about $1,000], of which sum about half goes for the skin, half for the flesh, entrails and bones."

By the time Bergman arrived in Korea, tigers were found only in the Mount Baekdu area ― they had been exterminated in the southern part of the peninsula. In 2017, two tigers (Duman and Geumgang) were released into the Baekdu-daegan National Arboretum's "tiger forest" (a fenced area equivalent to seven soccer fields) ― the following year two additional tigers were introduced. They are valuable representatives of Korea's natural history and future.

I would like to thank Diane Nars and Jeon Dong-hun for their assistance.


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