Poster heats up China "paper" tiger debate

BEIJING, Nov 19 (Reuters) - Chinese Internet users have pointed to a Chinese New Year poster as proof that a controversial photograph of a tiger purportedly snapped in the wild is fake, local media reported on Monday.

Last month, Zhou Zhenglong, a farmer from mountainous Zhenping county in northern China's Shaanxi province, produced photographs of a tiger he said were taken in the forest near his village.

A local forestry authority confirmed the authenticity of the photographs, and said they were proof that the South China tiger, belonging to a sub-species long feared extinct, still existed in the wild.

But Internet users have accused Zhou of making the tiger images with digital software, and local authorities of approving the photographs in order to boost tourism.

The emergence online of a commemorative Chinese New Year's poster of a tiger reclining on a rock produced in 2002 has been cited as proof that Zhou faked the image.

The poster's manufacturer was quoted by local media reports as saying that the tiger's "stripes, bearing and motion are exactly the same as the New Year's poster".

Luo Guanglin, general manager of Yiwushi Vista Print Packing Co Ltd, told Reuters by telephone that the tiger on the poster his company produced was "very similar" to Luo's.

"I can't say whether Zhou's tiger is the same. That's for experts to decide... But it is very similar, over 90 percent similar," Luo said.

While the tigers are placed in different settings -- Zhou's in a forest, and Vista's on a rock in a gushing stream -- the stripes and pose of the tiger look similar to the naked eye.

Zhou's photographs have sparked a state-sponsored hunt in Zhenping to see whether the South China tiger really exists in the wild.

"Regarding the South China tiger, there will be a result soon," the Yangcheng Evening News quoted Shaanxi provincial governor Yuan Chunqing as saying.

"The investigation ... is necessary, and the government is right to encourage it," Yuan said.

In the early 1950s, an estimated 4,000 of the tiger sub-species roamed the country, but its habitat has been squeezed by the country's rapid economic growth.