The influential America-based Science magazine published a photo Friday which it claimed to be of a wild South China tiger, which was taken in northwest China.

The magazine quoted Gary Koehler of Washington State’s Department of Fish and Wildlife as saying that “it’s tremendously exciting news, if it can be substantiated”.

The photograph, purporting to be the first sighting of a South China tiger for more than 30 years, has already aroused intensive among Chinese netizens as well as scientists and scholars, after it was released on October 12.

The photo was chosen from 71 digital and film photos, reportedly taken by a local farmer named Zhou Zhenglong in early October in Zhenping County, Shaanxi Province.

There are doubts over its veracity and suggestions that digital technology may have been used to alter the image by netizens and a botanist with the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS). In addiction the international foundation, Save China’s Tigers (SCT), also issued a claim commenting on the alleged spotting of the South China tiger.

The claim said that a tiger needs about 20 square kilometers of habitat for its own survival. Zhenping County has a tiger reserve zone of up to 140 square kilometers, so even if there are tigers, it will only be a very small population.

Tigers, as solitary animals, are not easily spotted by humans. So it would have been extraordinary for Mr. Zhou to spot and photograph the tiger for two days in a row, the claim said.

It also pointed out that tigers are very vigilant animals. When they see strange animals, their first reaction would be to press themselves flat to the ground and prepare for attack or escape. But Zhou’s photos did not show the tiger in such a position.

But forestry officials in Shaanxi have rushed to Mr Zhou’s defense. “The photos were proved genuine by experts of wildlife and photography we have organized to scrutinize them,” Said Sun Chengqian, deputy-director of the provincial forestry department.

Guan Ke, an official with the department’s information office also claimed that he believed that the photos are genuine, judging from his many years’ experience of shooting wildlife in Shaanxi Province.

However, the State Forestry Administration (SFA) urged the public to be more sensible over the authenticity of those photos.

“One single tiger does not necessarily translate into the existence of a group, and whether the photos are true or not does not illustrate the current situation of wild South China tigers,” said Cao Qingrao, spokesman of SFA at a press conference Thursday.

“Disputes over those photos would be a storm in teapot,” said Richard Stone, Asia editor of Science magazine.

Some Chinese scientists also echoed the opinion saying that people should know better than merely arguing about the authenticity of the photos.

“We should be aware that there are many wildlife and plants that should be protected in this area of Shaanxi even if there are no South China tigers,” said Xie Yan, a researcher of tigers with the Institute of Zoology of the CAS.

“To look from a positive point of view, disputes over the authenticity of the photos showed that the public has developed a much greater interest in the conservation of wild animals. It is important to preserve people’s concern about wildlife,” said Xie, adding that local people should be encouraged to protect the biodiversity in the area.

Chinese zoologists are preparing an expedition to determine the possible existence of the “extinct” wild South China tiger in Shaanxi Province. But the SFA ruled out the possibility of offering a reward for taking pictures of the wild cat for fear of disturbing them if they actually exist.”