An Endangered Species
Tigers as a whole are an endangered species. Once upon a time there were eight subspecies of tiger. Tigers belong to the Genus Panthera or 'big cats'. Of the five remaining groups, one (the Bengal) is endangered and the rest critically endangered. The Javan, Bali and Caspian tigers are now all extinct.
The Bengal (Indian) Tiger
The Bengal (Indian) tiger (Panthera tigris tigris or P.t.bengalensis) is the most numerous. It is found in India and south east Asia, ranging through Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, and Myanmar. The Bengal tiger lives in a wide range of habitats including the Sunderban, the only mangrove forests where tigers are found. During colonial rule in India the tiger was hunted and slain to provide trophies for rulers and royalty.
There is believed to be some 2,000 Bengals left in the wild with the 333 in captivity mostly in India. It is now strictly protected. Some males occupy a territory of 200 square miles. When there is enough food, the tiger lives in a much smaller territory. Its main prey is deer, antelopes, pigs and buffalo.
Bengal males are up to 10 feet in length and weigh from 400 to 575 pounds. A litter consists of 1 to 5 young. The upper body is reddish orange to ochre with white underparts and dark grey to black stripes. The skin is also pigmented. They have a white spot on the back of their ears. They have the ability to shed or grow body hair according to the climate. Speeds of up to 60 kms an hour are reached for short distances and sixteen to eighteen hours a day are spent sleeping. Poachers, decreasing habitat and retributive killings are the main threats to these tigers.
The Sumatran Tiger
The Sumatran (Panthera tigris sumatrae) is the only remaining subspecies of Indonesian tiger. Roughly 400 remain in the wild, mostly in Indonesian national parks. Another 210 are in zoos. These tigers are the darkest of all with broad, heavy black stripes closely spaced and often doubled. It also has striped forelegs. Males average 2.4 meters (8 feet) in length from head to tail and weigh about 120 kilograms (264 pounds). Females measure approximately 2.2 meters (7 feet) in length and weigh about 90 kilograms (198 pounds).
It is the smallest of the subspecies and face competition from agriculture and commercial plantations, logging, road construction and poaching. It is found only on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Its habitat ranges from lowland rainforest to montane forest and peat swamps. The Sumatran tiger eats wild pig and deer. As elevation increases, prey becomes less plentiful and tiger numbers decrease. Widespread poaching and increased deforestation means that unless authorities enforce the law, the Sumatran tiger will shortly follow the fate of its Javan and Balinese relatives.
The Indo Chinese Tiger
The Indo Chinese tiger (Panthera tigris corbetti) has been forced into small, scattered populations and is critically endangered. Tiger numbers probably range from 700-1,225 individuals. It is mostly found in tropical deciduous, semi-evergreen and evergreen forests. It is found mainly in Thailand but also in Cambodia, China, Lao PDR, Myanmar, and Vietnam. Poaching not only of the tiger, but also of its prey, makes the tigers' continued survival extremely difficult.
It is one of the smaller subspecies and darker than the Bengal with shorter, narrower stripes. The upper parts of the animal range from reddish orange to ochre, and the under parts are lighter. The body has a series of black stripes of black to dark grey colour.
The South Chinese Tiger
The South Chinese tiger (Panthera tigris amoyensis) has not been sighted in the wild for 25 years following decades of extermination as a pest. The South China tiger is found in central and eastern China and is the most critically endangered. Severe fragmentation of its habitat and scarcity of its prey has resulted in its status being known as 'functionally extinct'. There are 47 in Chinese zoos.
The South China tiger is one of the smallest tiger subspecies. Male tigers measure about 8 feet from head to tail and weigh approximately 330 pounds. Female tigers are smaller, measuring about 7 ½ feet long and weighing approximately 240 pounds. It has short, broad stripes set wide apart. It is reddish orange to ochre with dark grey to black stripes and the under parts are whitish. It is believed that all subspecies trace back to the South Chinese tiger.
The White Tiger
White tigers (Panthera tigris tigris) are not a new species nor are they albinos. The white tiger is a recessive gene carrier. The first white tiger (Mohun) was captured in 1951 in a district of Madhya Pradesh in India. White tigers with dark stripes are well documented in the Bengal subspecies and are sometimes known as Royal Bengal or Indian tiger. They tend to be larger than 'orange' tigers both at birth and when fully mature. Although there are only a few hundred existing in captivity, their number is on the increase. The unusual colouring has made them popular as tourist attractions.
The Siberian Tiger
The Siberian (Panthera tigris altaica) (also called the Amur) is the largest of the tiger species. Males may reach 13 feet long and weigh up to 660 lbs with females 8.5 feet and 200 to 370 lbs. Siberian tigers are a paler orange than other tigers. The brown stripes are widely spaced. The chest, belly and thick ruff are white.
There are an estimated 350-450 existing in the wild and another 490 in zoo conservation programmes. Siberian tigers live primarily in the coniferous and birch woodlands of the Sikhote-Alin mountain range east of the Amur River in the south east corner of Russia with a few in northeast China and the Korean peninsula. In the far east of Russia, the tigers' main prey is elk and wild boar. These move seasonally and are unevenly distributed so the tiger needs a vast area to survive. Formerly they were found as far west as Mongolia. Although these tigers have the harshest climate to contend with, human density is lowest and the ecosystem most complete with vast woodlands providing more area to roam. In the 1940s the Amur tiger was on the brink of extinction but conservation efforts by the Russians and others resulted in a halt in the fall of numbers. An ecological network of protected areas is being established.
Why Siberian Tigers Are Endangered
In 1991, estimates state that one third of the Siberian tiger population was killed to meet the demands of traditional Chinese medicine. In 1993 the State Council of the People's Republic of China issued a notice declaring the use of tiger bone for medicinal purposes to be illegal.
It is hard to imagine such as beautiful animal as the tiger as being so close to extinction. There are so many images of them – on rugs, mugs, calendars, in books. It seems they are everywhere – sleek, healthy and majestic. But the sad reality is very different.