Tigers are large, striped carnivorous cats native to Asia. They first appeared on the fossil record about a million years ago in southern China. They were abundant over much of Asia until the 19th century, and lived in an area that extended from Iran to Siberia, Korea and Bali. [Source: Geoffrey Ward, National Geographic, December 1997; Stanley Breeden, National Geographic, December 1984; Eugene Linden, Time magazine, March 28, 1994; John Burns, New York Times, March 15, 1994; Geoffrey C. Ward, Smithsonian, November 1987.
Leonardo DiCaprio and Carter S. Roberts wrote in the Washington Post, “Tigers have long provoked awe in the human imagination, becoming symbols of untamed nature whose "fearful symmetry," in the words of William Blake, has inspired everything from art to advertising. In the wild, however, tigers are on the verge of disappearing. [Source: Leonardo DiCaprio and Carter S. Roberts, Washington Post, November 7, 2010]
The Indian naturalist Kahlashi Sakkhala wrote: the tiger “is a creature of hypnotic power and fascination. The more one sees of this beautiful beast, the more one is charmed by its gorgeous color, the vivid pattern of the stripes on its glossy skin, the strength of the muscles and the grace of the tiger’s movements. But the tiger is far from being just a beautiful big cat. It is at the apex of nature’s pyramid, a balancing force on all the animals and creatures within its kingdom.
Mark Magnier wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “In India, the tiger is considered a national treasure. Durga, the powerful Hindu goddess, rides a tiger, while Shiva, the god of destruction and regeneration, sits on a tiger skin. But not everyone is enamored of its stripes.” "People facing the music every day are not tiger lovers," tiger reserve conservator Sunayan Sharma said. "They always say they are not against the tiger, but the moment you believe them, you are finished." [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, September 8, 2009]
Books: Tigers and Tigerwallahs by Geoffrey C. Ward, (Oxford University Press, 2002); Wild Tigers of Ranthambhore by Fateh Singh Rathore (Oxford University Press, 2000); Tigers: The Secret Life by Valmik Thapar, a prominent Indian naturalist (Oxford University Press, 2001).
Tiger Numbers and Range
There are an estimated 3,200 tigers living worldwide in the wild today. Wild tigers are still found in 14 Asian countries, including China and Russia. India is home two-thirds of world's tigers. There were around 100,000 tigers worldwide at the turn of the 20th century. There were around 11,000 in the mid-1960s and 5,500 to 7,500 in the early 1980s.
Estimated tiger populations (1997 when there were thought to be 5,000 to 7,000 tigers): 1) India, 2,500-3,750; 2) Myanmar (no estimate available); 3) Malaysia, 600-650; 4) Russia, 430 to 470; 5) Indonesia, 400 to 500; 6) Bangladesh, 300 to 460; 7) Thailand, 250 to 600; 8) Laos (no estimate available; 9) Vietnam, 200 to 300; 10) Nepal, 180 to 250; 11) Cambodia, 100 to 200; 12) Bhutan, 50 to 240; 13) China, 20 to 30 South China tigers; 14) North Korea, fewer than 10. Counting tigers is tricky and unreliable (See Endangered Tigers).
Tigers are found in several habitats but they prefers dense forest underbrush, and tall grasses which allows them to sneak up on their prey. They are very elusive and are rarely seen by humans. Even some scientists who study them have never seen them in the wild.
Counting tigers is no easy task. Because tigers are so difficult to find in the wild, censuses are conducted by counting tiger paw prints and studying prey and feces samples in a given area; using sampling techniques to calculate in tigers they may have missed; and extrapolating that number over an area where tigers are thought to live. By making plaster casts of tiger prints researchers are able to tell one animal from another.
Governments and park officials sometimes inflate numbers for P.R. reasons and underestimate numbers to receive funding from organizations to help endangered tigers. According to report on India, "State administrators appear to deliberately conceal the loss of tigers to poachers.
Tiger Size and Age
Tigers are the largest and of all cats. Siberian tigers, the largest of all tigers, can reach a length of 13 feet from tail to nose and weigh 800 pounds, making them significantly larger than lions their next closest competitor and about 50 times bigger than a domestic cat (See Siberian Tigers, Russia and Bengal Tigers Under Tiger Species) . As a rule the size of a tiger is often determined by what it eats. Siberian tigers are big because they eat large deer. Sumatran tigers are smaller because they feed on smaller prey.
Large size is also an advantage in the cold Some scientists believe that people in northern climates developed stockier bodies because they have less surface area and retain internal heat better than long thin bodies with long limbs which have more surface area to dissipate heat. This may be why many animals in hot climates have long thin bodies, while those in northern areas are stockier.
On average tigers that survive into adulthood live around 16 years. A tiger in captivity can live up to 25 years. The oldest tiger on record lived to be 26. Scientist often determine the age of a tiger by examining its teeth. If they are worn and broken it means the animal is old.
Tigers can cover 13 feet in a single bound when they are running at full speed and can leap 23 feet. Their huge size and the immense amount of energy needed to move their bodies restricts them to one or two bounding leaps.
Tigers have very good vison. They can hunt almost equally well during the day and at night. They also have good hearing. They rely on sight, hearing and smell to locate prey.
Tigers have paw pads that are soft and particularly sensitive to heat. This prevents them from running through thorny underbrush and particularly hot sand. Tigers sharpen their claws by scrapping them on trees. They stand on their hind legs and raking them downwards in the bark. Their sand-paper-like tongues are rough enough to tear way human skin with a couple of licks.
Tigers are regarded as the strongest and most dangerous of all cats. They can knock down animals four times their size and have the largest canine teeth or any terrestrial carnivore. The jaws of a tiger are powerful enough to crush the backbone of prey and gentle enough to lift a tiger cub and carry it from a den to a hiding place.
Tiger Fur and Coloration
A tiger’s yellowish coat and black stripes help it blend in with shadows and high, brown grass, where they often do their hunting. The markings are considered "disruptive" camouflage, which act to break up the animal’s outline, especially at dusk, when they usually begin their hunt. A tiger’s coloring and markings are even an advantage when they are in the water. The naturalist Kahlashi Sankhala said, “the dazzling sun confuses the eyes and a tiger can easily be taken for a river boulder.”
The fur of tigers that live in cold, open areas is thick and light colored while the fur of tigers that live in the tropics have shorter and darker hair. Dark coloring is an advantages in an area with lots of trees and shadows.
Scientists can identify tigers by the stripes and squiggles on the animals cheeks and forehead which are as distinctive and unique as human fingerprints. Some Bengal tigers are born with almost white fur, the result of a recessive genetic trait. These tigers usually have blue eyes and black stripes. Most of the white tigers alive today are descendants of a single white tiger found by a maharaja in India in the 1850s. Such tigers rarely survive long in the wild. Their strange coloration cause them to be rejected or even attacked by other tigers.
David Attenborough wrote: “A tiger caught by Indian maharaja in the middle of the last century was white. He was so intrigued by it, he kept it in a private zoo. There it was selectively breed and soon “white tigers” were distributed among zoos internationally. They are not, however, a separate species. Their coloration is due to a genetic aberration called albinism, which occurs in many other species of animal, including mankind. Albino tigers, however, are exceedingly rare in the wild, and it not hard to understand that such pale, and conspicuous animals might find it difficult to hunt successfully in the darkness of the forest.”
Tiger Behavior and Vocalizations
Tigers are solitary animals but are not adverse to occasional congregations. They can be active at any time of the day or night, and are particularly active at down and dusk. They are very secretive and like to hang out in places where they are hidden or hard to see. John Seidensticker of the National Zoo described tigers: "Always secretive---never devious. Always a killer---never a murderer. Solitary---never alone. Most of the information below relates to Bengal tigers in India, the most well-studied tigers.
Tigers can climb trees and swim. They are quite good swimmers and unlike many felines they seem to like the water. The can often be seen cooling off in pools or streams on a hot days and like to chase prey into water where they feel they have an advantage. They also get relief from the heat by resting in shady areas.
Tigers are regarded as smart and resourceful. In The Face of the Tiger, Charles McDougal wrote: “The tiger is a first-class naturalist and knows the seasonal and activity patterns of various prey animals---where they may be found, and when they will be feeding or resting. When hunting the tiger moves slowly, making maximum use of cover for concealment, frequently pausing to listen and watch.”
A tiger roar is arguably one of the scariest noises on the planet. Stanley Breeden, at naturalist who spent ten years studying tigers, wrote in National Geographic that the roar made by a tiger on the verge of fighting is "an unearthly sound that shakes the forest." He said the full throated roar lasted for about ten minutes and was followed by silence. He didn't witness the fight that took place afterwards but he did see the chewed up loser of the fight.
Tigers as well as lynxes and pumas purr like house cats and make distinctive mating calls. The zoo in Bhubaneswar, India contains a tigress that climbed a concrete wall and broke into the zoo when it was a wild animal to seek a captured male that it heard calling.
Tigers need a territory with a radius of around 20 kilometers and tend to stick to fairly well-defined areas. Males and females often occupy territories that overlap. Female Bengal tigers, for example, occupy a six square mile territory, which they vigorously defend against other females. The territory of a Bengal male may overlap with the territory of four or more females. When a territorial tiger dies or move on, transient tigers move in.
Tigers mark their territory with urine and secretions released by glands in their paws. They often gouge trees with their claws so their their scent will remain behind a long time. This glands that release the scent are the same ones females use to give off their distinctive estrus scent to let males know they are available.
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 most often seen in areas where tigers encounter the scent sprayed by other cats.
Tigers will fight over territory. Breeden heard two tigers release blodd-curdling prars as they prepared to fight. He didn't witness a fight but he saw the result. The loser had a "a huge swath of skin and flesh ripped away between his eyes and down his nose. The wounds became infected and because the tiger was unable to hunt and three months later he was found dead. The winner. who suffered only a few scratches, took over his territory.
Bengal tigers eat an average of 13 pounds of meat a day. A mother with two cubs needs about 20 pounds a day. Feeding tigers generally consume 40 to 60 pounds of meat in one sitting but have been observed eating 80 pounds at one time and consuming 90 pounds a day. Tigers can endure great lengths of time without a meal. . When tigers eat a lot their stomachs are sometimes so distended they can hardly move.
A kill often lasts a tiger several days. After a meal is over, the carcass is either dragged to a concealed place or covered with branches and leaves and guarded against other animals and other tigers. Powerful jaw, neck and chest muscles allow them to drag their prey a long way. Tigers fiercely defend any kill they make. Geoffrey Ward, author of The Tiger-Wallahs, once asked his guide why feeding tigers were so aggressive. The guide replied, "Tigers do not like to share.”
Tigers fiercely defend their kills. Ward, wrote “when a tiger is surprised on a kill, it follows a fairly standardized routine to scare off anyone who ventures too close. First it give a warning roar (I heard this sound twice, and found it awesomely persuasive both times). Then it roars even louder. Then, if the intruder still fails to back off, it may make a mock charge. Finally, as likely as not, it will turn and run rather than launch an all-out attack."
Tigers are fastidious eaters. Even when ravenously hungry they dress their prey and lick away any blood before eating. Tigers usually eat the hindquarters first and work forward. When a tiger reaches the abdomen it pulls out the intestines of the prey and carefully empties the rumen sack. The sandpaper rough tongue cleans away the bones. The neatness of their eating habits make tiger kills easy to identify.
Tigers drink from streams and rivers s well as fetid pools filled with rotting leaves, insects, and monkey urine. Tigers sometimes eat fruit. They have been observed getting drunk from munching on fermented durians.
Tigers can kill animals four times their size but will eat locusts, termites, rats, other rodents, lizards, fish and frogs if they are desperately hungry. They prey primarily on deer and wild pigs but have been seen eating porcupines (quills in the mouth sometime produce fatal infections); dragging a 400-pound buffalo a third of a mile through the bush; and swimming with a 200 pound deer in their mouth. Tigers have killed baby elephants, young rhinos and adult leopards and bears. Tigers, weighing 500 pounds, have been observed feasting on deer weighing 700 pounds and bringing down a one-ton gaurs.
Tigers get meat anyway they can. They will scavenge carcasses, seize prey taken by other tigers, drive leopards from their prey, wrestle crocodiles in the water to get their kills, and steal birds killed by smaller wild cats. Tigers have been observed walking into bushes and trees, blinded by the wings of bird they were carrying in their mouth.
Different species of animals seem to cooperate when a tiger is the general area, sending out calls that can be heard over a large area. Barking deer bark and sambars make a loud “poning” noise. Monkeys, peafowl, jungle fowl and a variety of their bird send out alarm calls that not only alert their own kind but also warn other species. When the tiger is near, however, the forest becomes deadly quiet as no animal wants to give away its position.
Tigers on the Hunt
Wild tigers make a kill about once a week and have a try-to-kill ratio of between 10 to 1 and 20 to 1. They feed on a kill for roughly two or three days, rest for two days more and then spend two days hunting before finally making another kill. Because so much energy is spent located prey and killing it, hunting large animals is considered more efficient than hunting smaller ones.
Tigers hunt mainly at night but often hunt in the day and have even been observed hunting in the middle of the afternoon when most other big cats take a siesta. They generally stalk their prey, often by slinking stealthily through the high grass, and charge their prey at relatively short distances from the side or from behind. In grassland, they tend to hide well camouflaged in the bush along game trails and spring on their prey in lightning attacks. Tigers also like to attack prey when they are in water and have been known to chase victims up trees.
Tigers normally cover eight to 15 miles when they do their hunting round at night. They make a “pook” sound when they are looking for prey. Injured tigers often have difficulty hunting and thus eventually die from starvation or infection. Pale colored scant means the tiger hasn’t eaten for a while.
Tigers Making a Kill
Tigers use their powerful forelegs, the size of a man’s thighs, to knock down and grab hold of prey. The final kill is made with their powerful jaws and the stabbing action of their canines and bone shearing of their incisors.
Most victims are killed within 90 seconds by a bite to that nape of the neck or spine or by an asphyxiating throat hold. In the latter, a tiger clamps down on the prey’s windpipe, cutting off the air supply until the prey stops breathing. The puncture marks made by the tiger's canine's are bigger than a person’s index fingers.
For tigers, killing is an instinct. In one experiments, young tigers, who had never seen a real deer or received training in hunting, charged foam deer model scented with deer urine. In another experiment they climbed trees to get at the skin of a wild boar.
When asked he found most interesting about tigers, Ullas Karanth, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society's India Program, told the New York Times in 2006: “The way nature has designed them. They are built to take down prey four to five times their own size. If I went into the forest, it would be hard for me to get within striking range of a deer. This huge cat does it effortlessly. It can grab onto something that weighs about a ton, wrestles it down and kill it, all very safely and quietly. [Source: Claudia Dreifus, New York Times, August 16, 2005]
Water Hole Tiger Hunts
Many tigers stake out water holes and chase prey into the water. Once a tiger gets a hold of a victim it hold its head under water until it drowns. Crocodiles and alligator kill using a similar method.
During the dry season most kills are made at water holes, where tigers go after swamp deer, which feed in the water, and sambar deer which often wander into the middle of the water hole, where they are vulnerable, to feed on water lilies. The high grass around the water hole is a perfect place for a tiger to hide and wait.
One technique that serves a tiger well is chasing panicked deer from shallow to deep water where the tiger grabs the deer. Describing one such attack Breeden wrote: "In four gigantic bounds [the tiger] pounces on the fawn, pushes it underwater, and grabs it in his powerful jaws. He shakes it. Trotting back to shore, he disappears in the grass."
Stalking Tiger Hunts
Stalking tigers often spend twenty minutes or more making their stalk, trying to creep within 40 feet or so of their prey, on padded feet that don't make a sound, to get in position to attack. Tigers often have to make the kill in the initial charge or the attack is unsuccessful. Prey do their best to avoid becoming kills. When a spotted deer senses a tiger is near it freezes, ears up, and sometimes makes a loud barking noise. To avoid a tiger attack can leap into the air and skip sideways up to15 meters.
When a tiger spots a small herd of spotted deer, Breeden writes, "suddenly the tiger stops in his tracks. He makes not a motion---no tail twitch, no ear movement, not even a whisker quivers. He is frozen in the partial cover of a small patch of grass. As long as he is motionless, the deer can not see him, even at 30 or 40 feet. There is no breeze, so they cannot scent him. Slowly the tiger lies down. For half an hour or more he watches the deer. Then, carefully placing one foot in front of the other so as to not make a sound in the dry leaf litter, he moves himself from bush to bush."
"Though grazing quietly," Breeden continues, "the deer are alert...One sniffs the air, there must be a faint tiger scent, for the doe stamps a forefoot, a sign of mild alarm...The tiger is rigid in a crouch. The doe stamps her foot again, raises her tail, sounds a bell-like alarm call. The tiger bursts from cover, tail erect, ears forward. In unbelievable fast bounds he rushes the deer. They scatter...He misses, snarls, and utters a series of moaning roars." In his ten years with tigers Breeden said he witnessed only one successful kill.
Large Carnivores Help Ecosystems
In January 2014, AFP reported: “The gradual decline of large carnivores such as lions, wolves or pumas is threatening the Earth's ecosystems, scientists warned as they launched an appeal to protect such predators. More than 75 per cent of 31 large carnivore species are on the decline, and 17 of them now occupy less than half of their former ranges, says a study published in the American journal Science. [Source: AFP, January 10, 2014]
"Globally, we are losing large carnivores," wrote William Ripple, lead author of the study and a professor in the Department of Forest Ecosystems and Society at Oregon State University. "Many of them are endangered," Ripple wrote. "Their ranges are collapsing. Many of these animals are at risk of extinction, either locally or globally. And, ironically, they are vanishing just as we are learning about their important ecological effects."
Ripple and his colleagues reviewed published scientific reports and focused on seven species that have been studied for their widespread ecological effects. They are African lions, leopards, Eurasian lynx, cougars, gray wolves, sea otters and dingoes. The different reports show that a decline in pumas and wolves in Yellowstone National Park led to an increase in animals that feed on tree leaves and bushes, such as deer and elk. This disrupts the growth of vegetation and shifts populations of birds and small mammals, the researchers said.
In Europe, fewer lynx have been tied to overpopulation of roe deer, red foxes and hares, while in Africa the disappearance of lions and leopards has coincided with a dramatic increase in the number of olive baboons, which threaten farm crops and livestock. In Alaska, a decline in sea otters through killer whale depredation has triggered a rise in sea urchins and loss of kelp beds.
"Nature is highly interconnected," said Ripple. "The work at Yellowstone and other places shows how one species affects another and another through different pathways." For instance, avoiding overpopulation of herbivores allows forest flora to develop more and sequester more carbon dioxide, the main green house gas responsible for global warming. But the authors of the study say it will be very hard to convince people to accept a large scale restoration of large carnivore populations. People are afraid of them and have fought them to protect their livestock and their communities, they said.
Tigers breed throughout the year and are particularly active in the cool dry season from November to April. Ovulation is induced by mating. If conceptions occurs two to three cubs are born 95 to 110 days later. If the female doesn't conceive she become receptive again in 25 days.
Tiger couples mate when the female is in heat and can copulate several times an hour. The male mounts the female after she signals she is ready by tucking her legs underneath her and crouching. During mating the male often bites the female’s neck and the female responds by turning her head around and roaring right in the males face. The noises made by copulating tigers have been compared to a “chorus” of “a hundred pairs of noisy cats...multiplied copiously.”
The mating goes on for about three days. Before sex begins, tigers often rub faces. Sometimes there is a big fight that leaves both the male and female with bite marks and cuts. After the sex the female often rolls on her back and the male flops down for a rest.
During the mating period, male and female are side by side around the clock for a week, often mimicking each other’s moves. When a female gives hear mating roar and then urinates the male does the same thing. After a kill has been made the male will sometimes sniff the female, give a mating roar, circle her a few times and then wrestled with her.
Newborn cubs weigh 2½ to 4 pounds and are about the size of puppies. They are born with their eyes closed like kittens. Tigresses generally give birth once every two years after producing cubs for the first time when they are four of five. If a tigress lives to the age of 18 and raises two cubs every two years she will raise around a dozen cubs in her lifetime.
Tigers litters contain three to five cubs but generally only two survive the first month. The chances of cubs survival to adulthood are slim. Mothers sometimes abandon their cubs and male tigers sometimes kill cubs and eat them. Some cubs die in monsoon floods, brush fires, or fights with other tigers. Others are killed by humans, jackals, crocodiles, wild boars, and dholes. Yet others die from starvation after being born with physical deformities or suffering injuries. One well-studied 16-year-female gave birth to 18 cubs over 11 years but only seven survived into adulthood.
Cubs are usually born in a cave and suckle on their mother for about 45 minutes at a time. Before the mother goes off hunting, sometimes for up to 24 hours, she carefully bites the cubs and lifts them by the scruff of their neck and hides them.
Tiger Cub Upbringing
Mother tigers stay with their cubs for about two years. The cubs feed on meat at three or four months brought to the den by their mother. They are weaned after five months and from then on are taken to hidden kills by their mother to eat. Mothers often have an exhausted look on their face at this stage.
Sometimes males help out with child rearing duties. They have been observed playing with and traveling with cubs. Fathers have “survival of the fittest” reasons to look after the cubs. Sometimes rival males will kill the cubs and mate with their mother. When females lose their cubs they often go into heat again.
Establishing bonds are important for tiger cubs in their first year of life. Cubs rub their faces against their mother's face, similar to the way domestic cats rub up against people. Mothers in turn lick the faces of their offspring.
Tigers Growing Up
Cubs learn to hunt from their mothers between the ages of 12 and 16 months. During the first several months the mother teaches her offspring hunting skills by playing hide-and-seek games with them in the tall grass and teaching them pounce and grab her tail. Later the cubs accompany their mother on a hunt.
The training lasts for a year-and-a-half to two years. The cubs then often stay together for a year because they are too inexperienced to hunt on their own. Young tigers play and romp around to sharpen their hunting skills and create sibling bonds. In the early stages of training cubs are often able to knock down prey but they have trouble delivering the fatal bite to finish the animal off. Sometimes the mother will cripple an animal rather than kill it to assist the cubs in their learning.
When tigers are 18 to 24 months old they leave their mothers. Generally the roam around for months or years before they are able to establish their own territories. Often they end up competing with parents or siblings for territory and sometimes engage in fights to the death with them.
Tigers that reach adolescence have about a 50 percent chance of living to a normal age. Young males at this age often disperse but daughters will often continue to live near their mother for much of their life and inherit their mother’s territory when she dies.
Tigers and Other Animals
Sometimes mongooses and scavengers join the tiger at his kill and help themselves to a few bites before being driven off. On occasion crocodiles steal a tiger's kill.
Leopards sometimes share the same range with tigers and lions but usually go out of their way to avoid them and occupy different ecological niches. An adult tiger weighs four times more than an adult leopard. If a leopard is seen in territory previously occupied by a tiger, it probably means the tiger has been poached.
Elephants and tigers both go out of their way to avoid a confrontation with the other. When confronted with a tiger, some elephants will bravely hold their ground while other will flee with their tail between their legs. Encounters with wild bison are similar, while rhinos and elephants seem to tolerate one another
Many tiger watching expeditions take place on the backs elephants. Tigers tend to ignore elephants with human passengers. Sometimes they charge elephants carrying toutiest. But very rarely. Elephants in Nepal bang their trunk to ground with a loud thump when they first sense that a tiger is nearby. To alert elephants far away they emit a deep rumble.Tigers sometimes charge elephants and vehicles, but very rarely.
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 November 2013