The Year of the Tiger*

The largest cat of all. Top of the food chain. One of the most culturally important animals on this planet.
But with as few as 3,200 surviving in the wild, the tiger faces extinction by the next Year of the Tiger in 2022. -WWF

OK, I know I promised more posts on the giant panda, and they will come soon. But today I would like to call people’s attention to the imminent crisis surrounding this remarkable big cat.

The tiger (Panthera tigris) is a member of the Panthera lineage, which also includes the jaguar, lion, leopard, snow leopard and clouded leopard. Although the earliest Felids began to evolve during the lower Eocene, some 40 million years ago, and it included the already extinct saber-toothed cats, today’s cats diverged from the rest of the cat-like families (Viverravines) during the Oligocene around 30 million years ago.

Today’s tigers are found in Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia (Sumatra), Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, North Korea, Russia (Far East), Thailand and Vietnam. The very sad thing is that the number of wild tigers has fallen by about 95% over the past 100 years. Also sad is the fact they survive in 40% less area than what they occupied only ten years ago. (see attached map of the historical and actual range of the tiger)

Historical and actual ranges of the tiger ©WWF

Of the eight recognized tiger subspecies, the three smallest and most isolated are already extinct. The Bali tiger was the first to go -last seen in 1939- the Caspian and Javan tigers disappeared around the 1960s and 1970s respectively. Today, with only 20-30 tigers in the wild the South China subspecies appears to be on the verge of extinction as well. The remaining subspecies, Amur (Siberian), Bengal, Indochinese, Malayan, and Sumatran are also very threatened.

When tigers meet they may rub heads or make a puffing sound as a greeting. This behavior is supposed to transmit reassurance and appeasement.
One of the world’s largest populations of tigers exist in captivity in the U.S. With an estimate 5,000 tigers, the U.S. captive tiger population exceeds the the approximately 3,200 individuals believed. to exist in the wild today
The Bengal (Indian) Tiger, Panthera tigris tigris, lives in dry and deciduous forests, grasslands and temperate forests, and mangrove forests

So what is going on? Guess what, humans, humans and humans. The greatest decline was probably caused by sports hunting during the 19th century and early part of the 20th century. In the early 1990’s the trade in tiger bones for traditional Asian medicines became a major threat. Add to that human-tiger conflict (tigers occasionally feed on humans, it’s generally accidental but it happens) and habitat loss and fragmentation we have the perfect recipe for extinction.

The threat to their habitat comes from the degradation and fragmentation that takes place as human populations growth and tiger populations become more and more isolated. Is something being done? Yes, for instance creative land-use plans have been proposed for countries like Nepal, Thailand, and Russia, seeking to link protected areas via a network of conservation units and ecological corridors with the goal to maintain the integrity of entire metapopulations. Successful habitat restoration projects in Nepal provide incentives to villagers in return for the protection of communal lands.

Unfortunately only six percent of the U.S. captive tiger population resides in zoos and other facilities accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA).
White Bengal Tiger. The famous white tigers are not albinos. Their chalk white coats, ice-blue eyes and chocolate-colored stripes are the result of a pair of recessive genes which probably resulted from a mutation that occurred about 100 years ago.
India is home to the largest population of Bengal tigers but it can also be found in Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, Myanmar and Nepal.

Now, habitat protection is not enough; sufficient prey needs to be present for this effort to be successful. Many areas in Asia that would otherwise be suitable are devoid of tigers because a shortage of ungulates (tigers’ favorite prey). For this to happen there needs to be better control of ungulates harvest in unprotected areas, along with the complete elimination of hunting activities in the protected areas. The potential for sustainable harvest could really benefit both tigers and humans. Other measures must include stopping tiger trade, strengthening anti-poaching efforts, supporting local conservationists and focusing on implementing new policies and sustainable forestry.

The key to this wonderful animals’ survival will depend on finding ways to meet the needs of both tigers and humans. We are lucky that tigers are great breeders and don’t have the problems that other threatened species like the giant panda have. With proper planning we could double the number of wild tiger populations by 2022.

To learn more about the global efforts to save the tigers you can visit the World Wide Fund Website tigers section

*According to the Chinese horoscope 2010 is the year of the tiger.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: