David Attenborough wrote: “Tigers were once found in most parts of Asia. They were so widespread, living in rain forest, marshlands and dry scrub country , that they developed into separate regional populations sufficiently distinct in size and coat patterns to be classified as subspecies.”
At the turn of the 20th century, there were eight tiger subspecies. Three became extinct---the Bali, Javan and Caspian tigers (which once ranged from Turkey to Afghanistan) “and five remain---the Siberian (Amur), Bengal, South China, Bengal, Indochinese and Sumatran. There are reasonably large populations of Bengal tigers and Indochinese tigers. There are only a few hundred each of the Siberian, South China, and Sumatran tigers.
Lions and tigers have been interbred. "Ligers" are the product of a female tiger and male lion. "Tigons are progeny of male tigers and female lions, Male hybrids are believed to be sterile. Female ligers have been successfully bred with lions, producing cubs that reach adulthood. No ligers or tigons have ever been found in the wild
South China Tigers, See Separate article.
Bengal and Indochinese Tigers
Bengal tigers are the most common tiger. There are reasonably large populations of them in the wild (2,970 to 4,300 animals) and they are found in India, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal. They are the symbol of India and make up the majority of tigers seen in zoos and circuses. Their main prey are chital (spotted deer), sambar (a large Asiatic deer) and wild pigs. They are particularly fond of fawns.
An average male Bengal tiger weighs around 500 pounds (220 kilograms) stands 36 inches high at the shoulder, measure ten feet from the tip of their nose to end of their tail and has a head that is 16 inches long and 10 inches wide and pug marks that are seven inches across. Females are generally about a foot shorter and 100 pound lighter than males. The largest one on record, according to the Guinness Book of Records, was shot in Utter Pradesh on November 1967. It was 10 feet 7 inches long and weighed 857 pounds
The Indochinese tiger is found in Myanmar, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia and Laos. They are smaller than Bengal tigers and have different stripping patterns. They measure 2.84 meters from the end of their nose to the tip of their tail and weigh an average of 195 kilograms. There are between 250 and 600 of them. Indochinese tigers are regarded as more elusive than their Indian cousins. The tigers in Thailand are considered the most secretive of all.
The Siberian tiger is the world's largest cat. Also known as the Amur tiger, Manchurian tiger and Korean tiger, it can weigh up to 800 pounds. It is the only tiger that lives in the snow. Television naturalist David Attenborough called the Siberian tiger spectacularly large and said its large size is not unexpected because large size offers advantages in cold temperatures. [Source: Howard Quigley, National Geographic July 1993 [☹]; Maurice Hornocker, National Geographic, February, 1997; Peter Matthiessen, The Independent, March 5, 2000]
Siberian tigers are larger than Bengal tigers and twice as large as other Asian tiger species. Its thick coat makes it appear even larger. There around 400 to 500 left in the wild, mainly in the Primorye region of the Russian Far East---the largest continuous tiger population the world---and another 800 to 1,000 in captivity. India has more tigers than Russia but their population is broken up and fragmented.
Siberian tigers once inhabited all of Korea and much of Manchuria, eastern China and Siberia, perhaps as far east as Mongolia and Lake Baikal. On the banks of the Amur River archeologist have discovered 6,000 year old depictions of tigers carved by the Goldis people. Now the Siberian tiger’s range is limited to a 625-mile-long, 75-mile-wide, 60,000-square-mile strip of land in eastern Siberia near Vladivostok along the Pacific Ocean just north of North Korea. The heart of their range is the watershed of the Amur River and its tributary, the Ussuri, which forms the eastern border between Russia and China.
Decades of poaching and logging have ravaged the population of the Siberian tiger. Most Siberian tigers live in the 1,314-square-mile Sikhote-Alin Biosphere Reserve, Ussuriski Reserve, Lazoski reserve and Kedrobaya Pad Reserve in the Far East. There are maybe scattered 20 individuals in northeastern China and North Korea. Five or six Siberia tigers have been counted in the Jilin Province in northern China.
Book: "Tigers in the Snow" by Peter Matthiessen (Harvill Press, 2000]
Siberian Tiger Characteristics and Behavior
Siberian tiger average 3.14 meters (10 feet, 4 inches) in length (from nose to tip of tail), stand 1 to 1.1 meters (39 to 42 inches) at the shoulder and weigh 265 to 305 kilograms (585 to 676 pounds). A large male can measure four meters (13 feet) from tail to nose and weighs 362 kilograms (800 pounds).
The difference between the Siberian tiger and the more common Bengal Tiger is that the coat of the Siberian tiger is much thicker. This helps it survive the frigid Siberian winters. Siberian tigers also have more white in the patterns on their head and on their underbelly. Their orange color is less bright than other tiger species.
Siberian tigers can range over 400 square miles. Male Siberian tigers generally range across an area of 150 to 225 square miles. Females range cover a slightly smaller area. Siberian tigers have long memories. Offspring of a mother killed by poachers were still agitated as adults whenever they came in close contact with human males. Males sometimes live only six or seven year as they die in competition for mates and territory.
Tigers grimace when they sniff scents found in their territory. Known as flehmen behavior, the facial movement helps expose the scent to the sensory-cell-covered vomeronasal organ behind the palate. This behavior is usually seen in areas where other cats have sprayed their scent. Siberian tigers sharpen their claws by standing on their hind legs and raking them downwards in the bark of a tree.
Siberian Tigers on the Hunt
Siberian tigers feed primarily on goral, sitka deer and wild boar. They are large and strong enough to prey on elk. They like to hunt at night. They come alive in the winter and often hunt by waiting patiently in the brush and ambushing their prey along an animal track or near a river. They need about 10 pounds of meat a day.
Siberian tigers like to attack their prey from behind. Describing a tiger attack along a river, Peter Matthiessen wrote in the New Yorker: "From the evidence in the snow we were able to reconstruct what happened. The fore prints came together where the elk stopped short, in a place of elms and cottonwoods, some seventy yards from the crouched tiger. Perhaps the elk listened, sniffed, and trembled for a moment, big dark eyes round."
From this taut point, it suddenly sprang sideways, attaining the far bank in one scared bound, as the tiger launched herself from hiding and cut across her quarry's route in ten-foot leaps, leaving silent round explosions in the snow. Shooting through the dark riverine trees like a tongue of fire, she overtook the big deer and hauled it down in a wood of birch and poplar about thirty-seven yards...from where she started. Striking from behind, she'd grasped the throat, to suffocate her prey, for there was little blood---only the arcs of a bony elk leg sweeping weakly on the surface of the snow, and a sad last spasm of the creature's urine."
"Of the elk, all that remained were the legs, the head and the stiff, course hide, which are usually abandoned by the tiger. There was no meat left on the twisted carcass. They eyes were frozen to blue ice, too hard even for ravens."
Tiger have been observed hunting bear. Other animals sense tigers in the winter by the crunching noise from the snow. Siberian stone pine produces a favorite food of wild boars, which in turn are a favorite food of Siberian tigers. In some places these trees have all been cut down, depriving the boars and tigers of food.
Sumatran tigers are smaller, darker and their stripes are much closer to together than other species. They measure 2.54 meters from the end of their nose to the tip of their tail and weigh an average of 120 kilograms, with females being about 20 kilograms lighter than males.
Sumatran tigers are thought by some to be the most intelligent tiger subspecies. There is a story about one Sumatran tiger who was captured and placed on a ship that was supposed to deliver him to the Amsterdam Zoo. The tiger escaped from its cage and looked over the side of the ship and saw the coast of Malaysia, which was only four miles away. It then lept in the water and started swimming toward Sumatra which was 80 miles away.
There are about 650 to 700 tigers left. Around 350 to 450 live in Sumatra. Another 200 or so are in zoos. They are threatened by loss of habitat, primarily due to logging and deforestation in Sumatra, and poaching for Chinese medicine. An estimated 33 are killed every year. Stuffed ones were available not long ago on online auctions for $2,500. According to Korean immigration statistics, 8787 pound of tigers bones was imported from Indonesia between 1970 and 1993. A tiger normally produces around 20 pounds of tiger bones.
In Sumatra, many local people regard the tiger as an enforcer of proper behavior. They believe that a person who is killed by a tiger is being punished for some crime or transgression or broken taboo such as adultery or sharing food from the same pot.
Perhaps the largest population of Sumatran tigers is Bukit Tigapuluh wildlife reserve, but even there large swath of forests have disappeared and been replaced by rubber and palm oil plantations. Much of the reserve lies inside a land concession belonging to a subsidary of the Indonesian paper firm Barito Timber Pacific. The Tiger Foundation and the Sumatran Tiger Trust have been involved in efforts to save the Sumatran tiger. They established Indonesia’s first tiger sanctuary, the 150,000-acre Senepis Tiger Conservation Area. It can sustain 25 tigers, too small to accommodate a breeding population so tigers captured elsewhere are brought in.
Scientist now believe there are more tigers in Indonesia than were previously thought. There may be 500 in reserves and another 100 in unprotected areas. Despite pressures from poachers and deforestation, the Sumatran tiger has proved to be very resilient.
There are plans to clone Sumatran tigers using the same or similar technology used in the past to clone gaur. The plan calls for Sumatran tiger cub to be produced by placing tiger DNA into the eggs of a large non-tiger feline and for the eggs to be raised by the same animal.. Researchers also hope to raise tigers from embryos placed in lions. Rare Indian desert cats have been raised from embryos placed on domestic cats.
Extinct Tiger Subspecies
There are three extinct tiger subspecies: the Caspian tiger, Javan tiger and Bali tiger. Two of the Indonesia's three species of tiger have become extinct. The Bali tiger died out in the 1940s and the Java tiger disappeared in the late 1980s. Both were victims of loss of habitat and deforestation and hunting. Java is one of the most densely populated places in the world.
Caspian tigers were 2.95 meters in length and weighed an average of 240 kilograms. Some of these made their way to ancient Rome. The Bali tiger measured 2.81 meters in length and weighed an average of 100 kilograms. The Javan tiger measured 2.49 meters and weighed an average of 140 kilograms.
The Javanese tigers that lived in on the Ujong Kulon peninsula were believed by local people to posess the souls of their ancestors souls and thus they refused to kill them. These wonderful animals nevertheless succumbed to poaching and loss of habitat with the last remaining animals dying out in the 1980s. Ironically it may have been a tiger may have saved the Javanese rhino from extinction. After World War II a group of poachers went to Ujong Kulon with a plan to wipe out all of the park's rhino. When the poachers entered the peninsula one of them was killed by a tiger. Since local villagers wouldn't help them to kill the tiger (although they would have helped with the rhinos) the poachers gave up and went back home. [Source: Return of Java's Wildlife" by Diter and Mary Plage, June 1985]
White Tiger Genetics
A team of genetic scientists led by Dr. Luo Shujin from Peking University in Beijing, using whole-genome sequences of white and normally-colored Bengal tigers, has revealed that a mutation in a single pigment gene, called SLC45A2, is responsible for the unusual coloration of white tigers. [Sources: Current Biology; Peking University; Natalie Anderson of Sci-News.com, May 2013]
“The white tiger, an elusive Bengal tiger (Panthera tigris tigris ) variant with white fur and dark stripes, has fascinated humans for centuries ever since its discovery in the jungles of India. Many white tigers in captivity are inbred in order to maintain this autosomal recessive trait and consequently suffer some health problems, leading to the controversial speculation that the white tiger mutation is perhaps a genetic defect,” the researchers explained in a paper published online in the journal Current Biology. “However, the genetic basis of this phenotype remains unknown.”
In the study, the scientists mapped the genomes of a family of 16 captive tigers, including both white and orange individuals. They then sequenced the whole genomes of each of the three parents in the family. The genetic analysis led them to a pigment gene, called SLC45A2, which had already been associated with light coloration in some animals, including horses, chickens, and fish. The gene variant found in the white tiger primarily inhibits the synthesis of red and yellow pigments but has little to no effect on black, which explains why white tigers still show characteristic dark stripes. “The white tiger represents part of the natural genetic diversity of the tiger that is worth conserving, but is now seen only in captivity,” Dr. Luo said.
Dr Luo said, “Historical records of white tigers on the Indian subcontinent date back to the 1500s, but the last known free-ranging white tiger was shot in 1958. That many white tigers were hunted as mature adults suggests that they were fit to live in the wild. It’s worth considering that tigers’ chief prey species, such as deer, are likely colorblind.”
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: National Geographic, Natural History magazine, Smithsonian magazine, Wikipedia, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, Top Secret Animal Attack Files website, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, The Economist, BBC, and various books and other publications.
Last updated May 2014