Tigers (Panthera tigris) are mammals of the Felidae family, one of four “big cats” that belong to the Panthera genus. Tigers are predatory carnivores.
Tigers are easily recognizable by their stripes and their tawny fur color, which may range from yellow to orange (the white tiger is one notable exception).
Most tigers live in forests (for which their camouflage is ideally suited) and grasslands. Of all the big cats, only the tiger and jaguar are strong swimmers, and tigers may often be found bathing in ponds, lakes and rivers. Tigers hunt alone, and their diet consists primarily of medium-
There are eight separate subspecies of tiger, three of which are extinct and one of which is almost certain to become so in the near future. Their historical range (severely diminished today) ran through Russia, Siberia, Iran, Afghanistan, India, China and southeast Asia, including the Indonesian islands.
The Bengal Tiger (Panthera tigris tigris) is found through the forests and grasslands of Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India and Nepal. It is the national animal of India. The estimated wild population of this subspecies is 3000 to 4600, most living in India. These tigers are under severe pressure from both habitat reduction and from poaching; some recipes in Chinese medicine (in particular cures for impotence) require parts of tigers. Project Tiger, an Indian conservation project launched in 1972, has had limited success in protecting this subspecies.
The North China Tiger (Panthera tigris altaica), formerly the Amur or Siberian Tiger, alternately the Northeast China or Manchurian Tiger, is now confined almost totally to a very restricted part of eastern Russia. There are thought to be between 150 and 400 of these tigers in the wild today, and many populations are no longer considered to be genetically viable, meaning that they are subject to potentially catastrophic inbreeding.
The Balinese Tiger (Panthera tigris balica) has always been limited to the island of Bali. These tigers were hunted to extinction —the last Balinese Tiger is thought to have been killed at Sumbar Kima, West Bali on 27 September 1937; this was an adult female. No Balinese Tiger was ever held in captivity. The tiger still plays an important role in Balinese Hindoo religion. The Caspian Tiger (Panthera tigris virgata) appears to have become extinct in the late 1960s, with the last reliable sighting in 1968. Historically it ranged through Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, the former Soviet Union and Turkey.
Corbetts Tiger (Panthera tigris corbetti), or the Indo-
The Javan Tiger (Panthera tigris mondaica) was limited to the Indonesian island of Java. It now seems likely that this subspecies was made extinct in the 1980s, as a result of hunting and habitat destruction, but the extinction of this subspecies was extremely probable from the 1950s onwards (when it is thought that fewer than 25 tigers remained in the wild). The last specimen was sighted in 1979.
The Sumatran Tiger (Panthera tigris sumatrae) is found only on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. The wild population is estimated at between 400 and 500 animals, occurring predominantly in the island’s five national parks. Recent genetic testing has revealed the presence of unique genetic markers, indicating that it may develop into a separate species, if it is not made extinct. This has led to suggestions that Sumatran Tigers should have greater priority for conservation than any other subspecies. Habitat destruction is the main threat to the existing tiger population (logging continues even in the supposedly protected national parks), but 66 tigers were recorded as being shot and killed between 1998 and 2000—nearly 20% of the total population.
The South China Tiger (Panthera tigris amoyensis), also known as the Amoy or Xiamen Tiger, is the most critically endangered subspecies of tiger, and will almost certainly become extinct. It seems likely that the last known wild South Chinese tiger was shot and killed in 1994, and no live tigers have been seen in their natural habitat for the last 20 years. In 1959, Mao Zedong declared the tiger to be a pest, and numbers quickly fell from 4000 or so to approximately 200 in 1976. In 1977 the Chinese government reversed the law, and banned the killing of wild tigers, but this appears to have been too late to save the subspecies. There are currently 59 known captive Chinese tigers, all within China, but these are known to be descended from only 6 animals. Thus, the genetic diversity required to maintain the subspecies no longer exists, making its eventual extinction very likely.