Tigers are the largest of the "big cats", a group which includes lions, jaguars, and leopards. Some estimates indicate that a century ago, some 50,000 to 80,000 tigers roamed India alone. Today, there are fewer than 6,000 tigers worldwide. As the Asian human population continues to grow, farmers and loggers increasingly intrude on tiger territory. Inevitably, tigers suffer from such human encroachment.
Surviving Tiger Species:
So far this century, three tiger subspecies have been driven to extinction. These include the Bali ( panthera tigris balica), Javan ( p t sondaica) and the Caspian tiger ( p t virgata).
All five remaining subspecies are endangered. Several subspecies face imminent extinction. In 1996, the surviving subspecies include:
| Common Name || Latin Name || Characteristics || Est. 1995 Population |
| Siberian || p t altaica || the largest tiger, with yellowish fur || 150 to 200 |
| South China || p t amoyensis || a smaller redder cousin || < 50 |
| Indochina || p t corbetti || close set stripes ||800 to 1,200 |
| Bengal || p t tigris || narrower, darker stripes || 2,900 to 4,500 |
| Sumatran || p t sumatrae || the smallest tiger, short neck mane || 250 to 400 |
Tigers occupy habitats as diverse as the coniferous, mixed deciduous forests of the Russian Far East to the tropical rain forests, grasslands, and marshes of India and Indonesia. In the past, they were also found around the Caspian Sea in Turkey and Iran and on the islands of Bali and Java in Indonesia.
The smallest subspecies is the Sumatran tiger which measures 4.5 feet (1.4 m) in length (not including the 3 to 4 foot (1 m) long tail) and weighs 250 pounds (110k kg). The largest is the Siberian which can reach 9 feet (2.7 m) long and weigh 500 pounds (225 kg). Females in all the subspecies are slightly smaller.
The tiger's orange coat with black stripes blends in well with its natural surroundings. The black lines serve to break up its body shape for camouflage in thickets and tall grasslands. Researches use these stripes to identify individuals for study, as no two tigers have the same pattern of stripes.
Tigers live 10 years in the wild and longer in captivity.
Tigers are carnivores at the top of the food chain. While they prefer deer, antelope and wild
pigs, they will eat whatever they can catch. Often this means a diet of frogs, turtles, fish, or birds. However, large tigers sometimes kill animals much bigger than themselves such as water buffalo, elk or even elephant calves.
Although tigers do occasionally prey on humans, this is extremely rare. Researchers believe that "man-eaters" are sick or injured. Healthy tigers generally avoid contact with humans.
Tigers have keen eye site, an excellent sense of smell and large, cup- shaped ears that are efficient for hunting. Tigers are nocturnal, hunting at night, and their long, stiff whiskers are used as feelers to help maneuver through twigs and branches. However, the popular image of tigers as highly successful hunters is far from reality. In fact, tigers may catch their intended prey only 5 to 10 percent of the time. It is no wonder that tigers find slow, domesticated goats and cattle so desirable.
Tigers are ambush hunters, and require sufficient cover to creep within 10 to 25 yards (10 to 25 m) of their prey. Generally, a tiger will lie in wait for prey at a watering hole or along a well-used path. When the animal is within range, a tiger will charge the animal from behind. Tigers kill smaller animals with a bite to the neck - to sever the spinal cord. Tigers bite the throat of larger animals to cause rapid suffocation. Although tigers are fast over a short distance, they will rarely chase an animal for more than 100 yards (90 m).
After killing their prey, tigers typically drag the animal to a safe place to consume it over the course of several days. Often a tiger will go several days to a week without any food, then gorge itself a fresh kill, and eat as much as 40 lbs (18 kg) of meat at one time.
A female tiger will give birth every two years or so to a litter of 2 to 3 cubs. The gestation period for tigers is about 3 to 3.5 months. Cubs are small, blind and helpless at birth, and weigh 2 to 3 lbs (1 kg). Their eyes open at 6 to 8 weeks and they are weaned from milk at 6 to 8 weeks.
The mother will hunt and bring food back to the den for the first 2.5 months. Later, the cubs will accompany her to learn how to hunt. The mother will drive off her young at about 1.5 years when they are capable of surviving on their own.
Females reach sexual maturity at around 3 years, and males a year later.
Tigers are territorial. A male's range generally overlaps with ranges of several females, but never another male. The size of the range depends on the availability of water, cover for hunting and game. While some species may maintain territories of 10 to 30 sq. miles (25-80 sq. km), the limited availability of prey requires the Siberian tiger to claim areas as large as 120 sq. miles (310 sq. km).
To mark the boundaries of their territory, tigers scratch trees, scrape the ground, and spray trees, rocks, and bushes with urine and scent gland secretions.
Adult tigers are solitary, coming together only for several to mate. A mother and her young stay together only until the cubs are able to hunt and survive on their own.
The illegal trade in tiger products:
Until it was banned, trophy hunting and a market for tiger rugs and coats threatened the tiger's survival. Today, habitat destruction, population growth, and an insatiable demand for tiger parts may be too much for the remaining tigers to survive. In India alone, an estimated 300 to 350 tigers were killed yearly between 1989 and 1993.
In many Asian cultures, tiger parts are thought to cure diseases such as rheumatism, convulsions, typhoid fever, and dysentery. Tiger bone used in these traditional medicines sells in Korea for as much as $725 (US) per pound (half a kg) -- more than most villagers make in a year. In addition, tiger genitalia is considered to be an aphrodisiac that contributes to sexual stamina. All of these factors cause widespread poaching of tigers.
In Russia, logging threatens the Siberian tiger's already shrinking habitat. Poaching has greatly increased since the borders between Russia, China, and North Korea opened, providing easy access to the black markets there and in Taiwan.
In 1972, India led the world in efforts to save the tiger by setting aside a number of areas as tiger reserves complete with patrolling guards. But poaching continues due to widespread corruption and a lack of alternative incomes for village populations that continue to grow.
The tiger is protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), an agreement among more than 120 nations to eliminate illegal trade in animals and plants and their parts and associated products.
The U.S. government imposed wildlife trade sanctions on Taiwan in 1994 for
that country's illegal trade in tiger as well as rhinoceros parts and products -- the first time the U.S. government has taken such action on another country to penalize illegal trade in critically endangered wildlife.
Note: Some information has been excerpted from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) with permission. Other sources include the World Wildlife Fund.