The Story of Korea’s Tigers


The Story of Korea’s Tigers


The Manchurian Tiger (Panthera tigris altaica), which is now commonly called the Siberian Tiger, had roamed the hills and forests of the Korean Peninsula and Manchuria (Eastern Siberia) for thousands of years.  This isn’t a great secret to those who are Korean, Chinese and Japanese.

To an English speaking audience, the term of the Manchurian Tiger, rather than Siberian Tiger, can be found in a book entitled the “The Big Game of Asia and North America: The Gun at Home and Abroad” which was co-authored by Ford G. Barclay in 1905 (London).

The above photo (left) shows the last known Korean Tiger which had been shot dead by big-game hunters in 1921. Although folklore and old paintings pass along the legacy of the mighty tiger, no longer are tigers living in South Korea. They have become completely extinct in South Korea since 1921 – roughly 100 years ago. On the right side of the photo is Hodori (a Korean language nickname for Tiger) which was the official mascot of the 1988 Summer Olympiad.

Even though the 1988 Seoul Olympics Organizing Committee had tried to raise the awareness of Korea’s Tiger by choosing its mascot as Hodori, the results of their effort had severe shortcomings in terms of reaching a wide international audience. This is evident in the below BBC Documentary (YouTube) – narrated by Liz Bonnin – about the Siberian Tiger where not once was Korea explicitly mentioned as a former habitat of this great felid in its self-proclaimed “untold” story of Northern Asia.

In fact,  the proper habitat of the Siberian Tiger is (was) Northeastern Asia — the combined area of what is today’s Southern Siberia, Korean Peninsula and Northeast China — and not limited to Northern Asia. Moreover, stories about the Siberian Tiger (Panthera tigris altaica) have been told and passed-down in Korea and Manchuria for thousands of years in folklore and paintings.

♦ Value-Added Insight 

The disappearance of Korea’s last tiger occurred during the Japanese Colonial Period (1910 to 1945). After the Ganghwa Island Treaty (a.k.a. Japan-Korea Treaty of 1876), the skin of a Korean Tiger was considered to be one of the greatest possessions a Japanese official could take back home to Japan, since Japan had no tigers of their own due to them being an (detached from the East Asian continent) island state.

As aggressors, they (the Japanese) enjoyed to mimic those game-hunters who had hunted for lions in Africa and tigers in India. For more, the story is told by Endo Kimio in his booked entitled, “Why did Tigers disappear (vanish) from Korea?” (1986).

Leopards in Korea, on the other hand, had existed until 1970 – much longer than tigers. The below article from the Kyunghyang Newspaper (Shinmun) dated March 6th, 1970 shows the last leopard that was caught in the wild in South Gyeongsan Province.

The existence of dangerous wild-life (tigers and leopards) prior to the 21st century explains why traditional Korean homes had to have raised stone walls to surround their residency. It is construed that walls that surrounded an entire large city such as Seoul or Suwon functioned not only to keep away enemy soldiers but also to keep out (or partition) wild animals (from civilians). The Korean-Ussuri black bear is another example of such wildlife.


Geographically, today’s Northeastern Asia region (excluding the Southern area of the Korean Peninsula) was home to Korea’s Goguryeo Dynasty (37 BC to 668 AD) and Balhae Dynasty (698 AD to 926 AD) which is the historic (and ongoing customary) reason for why many Koreans still call this felid the Korean Tiger rather than the Siberian or Amur Tiger. In other words, the Siberian tiger is a relatively new, and a non-native, linguistic term to Korea’s 5000 year-old history.

Prior to the appearance of the term “Siberia” and Russia’s advancement into East Asia, old world western maps referred to what is today’s Siberia as “Tartary” – please google East Tatary (Manchuria) and Cathay Tatary (Northern China) for more information.

♦ Language Footnote 

  • Panthera tigris altaica = Siberian Tiger = Korean Tiger = Amur Tiger = Manchurian Tiger
  • Hodori = 호돌이 (name is derived from 호랑이 = Tiger (虎, = 호)
  • Tiger’s Skin = 호피 (虎皮 = pronounced Hopi)
  • Ganghwa Island Treaty (1876) = 강화도조약 (江華島條約)
  • Endo Kimio = 엔도 키미오 (遠藤公男)
  • Kyunghyang Newspaper (Shinmun) = 경향신문 (京鄕新聞)
  • South Gyeongsang Province = Gyeongsangnam-Do = 경상남도 (慶尙南道)
  • Goguryeo = Koguryo = 고구려 (高句麗)
  • Balhae = 발해 (渤海), pronounced as Bohai in Chinese or Бохай or Пархэ in Russian
  • Korean Tiger = 한국호랑이

♦ Related Outside Stories and External Links via the World Wide Web 

♦ More information from YouTube 


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