Talk about some good timing. Not only was Monday International Tiger Day, but the ‘Siberian’ tiger is one of the alpha predators in the book I’m reading, Monster of God. These cats are rapidly approaching extinction. We need to learn about them, and how to help them, before it’s too late.
Right now it’s generally agreed upon that there are nine subspecies of tiger: Caspian tiger (Panthera tigris virgata), Bali tiger (P. tigris balica), Javan tiger (P. tigris sondaica), South China tiger (P. tigris amoyensis), Indian/Bengal tiger (P. tigris tigris), Indochinese tiger (P. tigris corbetti), Sumatran tiger (P. tigris sumatrae), Amur/Siberian tiger (P. tigris altaica), and Malayan tiger (P. tigris jacksoni). Unfortunately, three of these cats, the Caspian, Bali, and Javan tiger subspecies are extinct, having all been killed off in the 20th century, and the South China tiger hasn’t been seen in 10 years, which means its extinct or nearly so.
“Some researchers have lately questioned the validity of those subspecies, both on genetic and on morphological grounds. Genetic work suggests that the eight-way isolation is recent, too recent for subspecies to differentiate. A morphological study, looking at body size, skull characters, coloration, and striping patterns, shows that variations in such parameters are more gradual than discrete. The author of that study, a cat expert named Andrew Kitchener, finds no more than a ‘very poor scientific basis for the eight currently recognized subspecies of tiger.’” – Monster of God, David Quammen, pg. 343.
Another interesting thing to note is that some people are under the false impression that one of these potential subspecies is white. This is incorrect. All tiger species/subspecies are a range or reddish, orange, or yellowish in color. But you’ve seen a white tiger? Me too. This isn’t a subspecies but a genetic mutation that leaves an individual pale. Also interestingly, a white male tiger, later named Mohan, was captured in Rewa of central Indian. He is the progenitor for almost all white tigers in captivity since 1951. The line has been perpetuated through selective, and sometimes incestuous, breeding.
A similar color mutation results in the “golden” tiger, which have light-gold fur, pale legs, and faint orange, not black, stripes. They also tend to have abnormally thick fur.
Males range in weight between 90 and 306 kg (200 to 670 lb), with the Siberian/Amur tiger being among the largest and the smallest living ‘subspecies’ being the Sumatran tiger (side note, Amur tiger is a more suitable name for these cats as it turns out they don’t actually live in Siberia). The extinct Bali was the smallest of the tigers. The Bali and Javan, both living on islands, tended to range smaller than the continental brethren and this is believed to be because of insular dwarfism. Who knows how small they may have become if they survived longer in their isolation.
Tigers are carnivores. They have muscular bodies, particularly muscular front legs, strong jaws and sharp teeth and claws, and an acute sense of smell. Their stripes, unique from individual to individual, help camouflage the animals, particularly as they stalk their prey along the shadowy trees. Generally solitary animals, tigers tend to only interact with each other during the mating season and when females have cubs. There are conditions that these cats may congregate into more dense areas, such as plentiful food supply. There are even cases where tigers were observed sharing kills.
Tigers are extremely endangered, with a wild population between 3,100 and 3,900 individuals. This includes all subspecies put together. They currently live in less than 7% of their historic ranges.
As is sadly the most common reason, habitat destruction by humans is one of the main causes of tiger decline. However, like rhinos and elephants and other animals, tigers are targets of poaching for their bones, skin, and organs. This is a major reason for their declining populations as most of these products are highly desirable on the Asian black market for traditional medicinal purposes (that unfortunately have largely been proven ineffective, with no real medical purposes, and therefore completely unnecessary).
There is a large international effort to protect tigers. Several countries such as India, Russia, and China have taken legal routes to dissuade and punish the killing of tigers. Preserves as well as anti-poaching units have been created. Many citizen-lead organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund, Panthera, National Tiger Conservation Authority, Tigers Forever and others have raised money for these preservation efforts as well as education efforts and scientific studies. They all take donations and can be followed on their web sites, twitter, and Facebook pages.
Despite the dire circumstances these animals find themselves in as they are pressed on all sides from increasing human populations desiring more and more natural resources, all is not lost. Recently the South Asian nation of Nepal has reported an increase in their tiger population since 2009. With numbers growing from 121 to 198, this is a promising step. An international effort to double the tiger population by 2022, called Tx2, is working to combat the illegal wildlife trade and protect their environments; this small step shows that there is hope for the tiger.