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When Tigers Stalked Korea
[Korea 1880-1930] Man-eating felines terrified villagers and travelers
Robert Neff (neff)     Print Article 
  Published 2007-05-06 13:33 (KST)   

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There is an old Chinese saying: "The Korean hunts the tiger six months in the year and the tiger hunts the Korean the other six months." To an extent it is true; the pelts of tigers were generally better in early winter when their fur was longer and thicker to protect them from the intense cold. This made them more valuable to the hunter than in the late spring when their pelts were thinner and they started to shed their heavy winter coats. So while Koreans generally hunted tigers in winter, unless they were pursuing an over-aggressive man-eater, the tigers hunted Koreans year-round.

"The reign of the tiger in Korea," published in Petit Journal, 1909
©2007 Robert Neff Collection
In the past, Koreans greatly feared yet revered tigers, giving them almost mystical abilities in both their legends and campfire stories. During the winters, villages often set tiger traps, made from heavy logs and baited with small live pigs or dogs, at each end of their main street in hopes of catching the tiger, not only for his luxurious pelt and flesh, but also for protection.

As the weather grew colder and the supply of fresh prey became scarcer, the Koreans prepared for the inevitable. Stoically, they barred and locked their doors in anticipation of the tiger's dreaded visit. The tiger, hunger driven, would slink silently into the isolated villages -- often nothing more than a cluster of thatched huts -- and upon padded feet would roam through the snow-covered streets sniffing the air for a possible meal.

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The tiger was alleged to be able to cry out like a human and lure his victims out into the open where he would quickly kill them and drag them away, leaving nothing more than a pool of blood and tattered clothing. Failing to lure his victims out into the open, he often forced his way into the homes, either through a door or the weak thatched-roof, carrying away young screaming children and devouring them in the safety of the forest. There was nothing that you could do to stop them, not even lying on your left side.

William Franklin Sands, the secretary at the U.S. legation, went hunting for a tiger that was terrorizing the Japanese-owned rest stop and inn half-way between Seoul and Chemulpo (Incheon). Sands spent a harrowing night in the darkness and nearly shot at a hapless Chinese man walking down the road. Sands never caught sight of the tiger, but the next morning he was able to verify, by its tracks, that it had been in the area. It was very fortunate for the would-be hunter that he did not engage the tiger, for later when he tested the ammo for his old Springfield single shot rifle he discovered that none of the ammo would fire.

Even in Seoul during the 1880s and 90s there were the occasional reports of man-eating tigers found within the city walls. Whether tigers actually prowled in Seoul or not in the 1880s and beyond is unverified, but there were big cats in Seoul. In the 1880s the German Legation's staff were forced to evacuate their compound after a large leopard was discovered roaming the grounds.

An Englishman, probably Alfred Burt Stripling, and his Korean assistant, hunted what they at first thought was a tiger, but later discovered to be a leopard, in the covered sewers near the abandoned palace. In a show of bravery, the Korean assistant went into the sewers with nothing more than two bamboo poles to force the beast out so that his English partner could shoot it. It needs to be mentioned that the Korean was convinced that the big cat had already left, but didn't tell Stripling because he wanted to impress him. To the Korean's horror, the cat was not gone and he was lucky to have escaped with only deep scratches before Stripling shot the beast.

Leopards also plagued the countryside and did occasionally attack humans, especially children. There are several pictures of miners with the pelts of these great cats that were caught too close to the mining settlements, and had to be killed. Although they were dangerous, there was no doubt that the king of the cats was the tiger.

In the early 1900s there were no records kept on the number of Korean children killed by tigers breaking into their homes, but it was believed that at least a score perished in this manner. Considering the numbers reported in other sources, this seems rather low. Even with guns, the Koreans weren't always able to fend off the ravages of the great beasts.
"The people on Chin-do, an island off southwestern Korea, report the ravages of an immense tiger which they say is over 20 years old and whose paws are seven inches broad as judged from his spoor, and whose body is covered with mud and pitch to which leaves and grass adhere. Their guns are useless against him and they are wondering how they will rid themselves of his unwelcome proximity."
However, after the Japanese prohibited Koreans from carrying firearms, the rise of tiger attacks greatly increased as a result of the Koreans' inability to hunt down the rogue man-eaters. The predations of these great beasts soon made their way into the Western newspapers. A French illustrated newspaper had a full-page colored litho depicting a great Korean tiger forcing its way into a Korean home and savagely attacking the terrified family.

A leading American newspaper carried the below account:
"It appears that since the Japanese occupation of Korea natives 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 natives have been devoured in certain districts within a week. The authorities will not raise the embargo upon firearms. How, then, is the number of these dreaded beasts to be reduced? ... It is to be feared the Koreans will have to recover their muskets or put up with the sight of hungry tigers wandering about their village streets."
The tigers had grown so bold that some of them lost what little fear of man that they had had. In May 1929, a huge tiger made its way into the market at Kokaido and devoured a horse. It was the second tiger that had been spotted in the region in less than a month.

Without their weapons, the Koreans were helpless before the might of the tigers. But this was not the first time that the Koreans had been relieved of their weapons and were forced to fight the tigers with drastic measures in order to defend themselves.

One of the first American businessmen in Korea, Walter Townsend, is credited with spreading an unbelievable tale of how so much of Korea came to be denuded of its forests. He claimed that the Korean people, plagued by man-eating tigers, denuded the trees and mountains of Korea in an attempt to remove the tigers' habitat and force them further away from the villages. He told this story and other stories about tigers to Prof. George Trumball Ladd when the latter visited Korea in 1907, but it was the story of denuding the mountains that became almost legendary and was eventually published in several books and newspapers as a fact. The story as it appeared in Prof. Ladd's book:
"According to Mr. Townsend, one cause of the deforestation of so large regions of Korea in former times was the fear of tigers; this fear was, of course greatly increased by the fact that the Government did not dare to entrust the people with firearms ... As late as about sixty years ago the principal road to Pyeng-yang from Seoul passed through a stretch of dense forest infested with tigers. As long as the slaughter by these beasts did not average more than one man a week, the people thought it could be borne; but when the number killed in this way rose to one or two a day, they applied to the Tai Won Kun and permission was given to cut down the forest."
Apparently, judging by the occasional articles found in the English-language newspaper The Seoul Press, the government did occasionally allow Koreans to carry arms to kill off troublesome tigers, but not often. Perhaps one of the strangest examples of a tiger killed by the Koreans after the possession of weapons was banned occurred in April 1929. Kun-woo Chang and nine other Koreans, armed with nothing more than clubs, managed to kill a tiger, but it seems doubtful that they were actually hunting it, and more than likely killed it in defense, or after it had been trapped.

Furthermore, one must wonder about the health and condition of the tiger when it was killed by the Koreans. Often tigers hunted humans when they were too old or injured to chase down deer and boar. Nonetheless, even an old tiger was a formidable foe, and the feat of the 10 men is something to be marveled at.

There are many accounts of tigers killing humans in Korea, especially children, but surprisingly there was another creature of the forests that claimed even more lives. But, as Prof. Andrei Lankov is so fond of saying, that is another story for another time.

- When Tigers Stalked Korea by Robert Neff (read by Claire George) 

©2007 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Robert Neff

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