Description and biology

Tigers are members of the cat family. They are the biggest of the big cats, a group that includes leopards, lions, and jaguars. There are eight subspecies of tiger. Three of thesethe Bali, Caspian, and Javan—all became extinct in the twentieth century. The remaining five subspecies are the Bengal (or Indian), Indo–Chinese, Siberian (or Amur), South Chinese, and Sumatran.

The color, size, and general appearance of tigers varies according to the subspecies. On average, a male tiger has a head and body length of 5 to 9 feet (1.5 to 2.7 meters) and a tail length of 2 to 3 feet (0.6 to 0.9 meter). It stands about 3.5 feet (1 meter) tall at its shoulder and weighs between 220 and 660 pounds (100 and 300 kilograms).

Since the animal is found in a variety of climates, from the snowy forests of Siberia to the jungles of Indonesia, the length of its coat varies. In general, its coat is orange–yellow in color, with numerous black stripes. Its underparts are white. The striping pattern varies not only among subspecies but with each individual tiger.

Tigers are mainly nocturnal (active at night). They are able climbers, good swimmers, and fast runners. Tigers can leap up to 32 feet (10 meters) and swim up to 18 miles (29 kilometers).

They are carnivores (meat –eaters), preying on deer, antelope, wild pigs, cattle, and other mammals. Their senses of hearing, sight, and smell are all keen. Tigers stalk or ambush their prey, pouncing on it from the rear or the side. The prey is usually killed by a bite to the neck or spine.

Despite their abilities, tigers are successful hunters only about 10 percent of the time. Because of this, most tigers travel between 10 and 20 miles (16 and 32 kilometers) a night in search of food. Tigers that attack and eat humans are generally too old or sick to hunt wild animals.

Tigers are solitary animals with home ranges that vary between 4 and 1,500 square miles (10 and 3,885 square kilometers). They are not entirely loners, as they will band together to hunt and to share their kill.

Males and females come together to mate at any time during the year, though primarily between November and April. After a gestation (pregnancy) period of just over 100 days, a female gives birth to a litter of two to four cubs.

The cubs are blind and helpless for the first two weeks. They nurse for six to eight weeks, then begin accompanying their mother on hunting trips. After almost two years, they leave their mother’s territory to establish their own.

Habitat and current distribution

Tigers occupy a wide variety of habitats, including rain forests, evergreen forests, mangrove swamps, marshlands, grasslands, and savannas.

There are currently as few as 5,000 tigers left in the wild. The Bengal tiger has the largest population of any tiger subspecies. Found in India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Nepal, and Bhutan, it has an estimated population of about 3,750. The Indo–Chinese tiger is found in Laos, Malaysia, Thailand, Myanmar, and Vietnam.

The South Chinese tiger, now almost extinct in the wild, is found only in southern China. The Siberian tiger, the largest of all subspecies, is found in North Korea, northern China, and the Amur–Ussuri region of Siberia in Russia. The Sumatran tiger, the smallest of all living tiger subspecies, is found on the island of Sumatra, Indonesia.

History and conservation measures

The protection of tigers has been an international concern since the 1970s. At the beginning of the twentieth century, an estimated 100,000 tigers roamed the Asian forests and grasslands. That population has since decreased by about 95 percent.

The Bali tiger, the smallest of the eight subspecies, became extinct in 1937. The Caspian tiger, once found as far west as Turkey, disappeared in the 1970s. The Javan tiger was last seen in 1983.

Historically, the tiger has been hunted as a trophy and for its beautiful coat. For centuries, many Asian cultures have used other tiger parts (bones, eyes, teeth, nails) in medicines, believing they cure diseases such as rheumatism and dysentery.

Some people even believe that a soup made from the genitals of a male tiger can increase sexual ability. International treaties now protect tigers, but because of these ancient beliefs, the animals are still hunted and traded. Conservationists believe that two or three tigers are killed each day in China and Taiwan.

The primary threat to the tiger’s current survival is habitat destruction. As forests throughout Asia are cleared for timber or to create farmland, tigers are forced into smaller and smaller areas.

These tiny islands of forest do not hold enough prey for the animals, and they are forced to feed on livestock and even humans. Increased contact with humans has only resulted in more tiger deaths.

In 1972, the Indian government launched Project Tiger, a program that established 23 tiger reserves. Even though these reserves are patrolled by guards, poaching or illegal hunting still takes place.

Great efforts made by conservationists (people protecting the natural world) in concert with the Russian government and local residents seem to have stabilized the Siberian tiger population in eastern Russia in the early 2000s. Increased scientific understanding of habitat requirements is leading many biologists to believe that the tiger population in the wild can be increased.