Largest of the great cats, Panthera tigris (family Felidae, order Carnivora), formerly found in much of central and South Asia, from Siberia south to Sumatra, but nearing extinction (5,000 in 1997) because of hunting and the high prices paid for the pelt, as well as the destruction of its natural habitat.
The male tiger can grow to 3.6 m/12 ft long, while the female averages about 2.6 m/8.5 ft. It weighs up to 300 kg/660 lb, and has a yellow-orange coat with black stripes. Tigers are solitary, and largely nocturnal. They will eat carrion, but generally kill for themselves. Their food consists mainly of deer, antelopes, and smaller animals, but they sometimes kill wild boar. Human-eating tigers are rare and are the result of weakened powers or shortage of game.
Characteristics and life history Tigers are monogamous, though they pair for only a few days before mating. Mating may take place up to 100 times during the few days in which the female is fertile. The period of gestation is 14 or 15 weeks, and from one to six cubs, weighing about 1.5 kg/3.5 lb, are born, though no more than two are usually reared. The young will stay with their mother for two years or more. The striped markings – black on reddish fawn – are present from birth, although rare cream or black specimens have been known. Young animals, characterized by their canine teeth being hollow throughout, are handsomer than older ones, the tawny orange colour being richer and the stripes darker and closer together. They live for about 15 years.
Varieties Three out of eight tiger subspecies, the Javan, Caspian, and Bali tigers, are believed to have become extinct 1900–1995. In Java, the last recorded sighting was in 1976; the Caspian was last recorded in 1970, and the last Bali specimen was shot in 1937. It was estimated in 1996 that there were only 6,000 tigers left worldwide, of which about 4,000 were Bengal tigers in India (there were 40,000 left in 1930), 650 Sumatran tigers, 200 Siberian tigers, and perhaps 50 in southern China. All are classified by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature as Endangered. In 1997 the worldwide tiger population numbered 5,000.
The largest of the species is the Siberian (Amur) tigerP. t. altaica; it has a yellowish coat and black and white tail. It is found through eastern Siberia, Manchuria, northern China, and parts of the Korean peninsula. Although its range has varied little during the last hundred years, its distribution has become more fragmented. In 1998 there were approximately 200–400 Siberian tigers in the wild, but the population is a stable one.
The Indian tigerP. t. tigris is the most common subspecies, occurring across the Indian subcontinent. Around 25% live in tiger reserves, set up from 1973, each with a core area free of human activity. This programme has increased numbers from below 2,000 in 1972 to approximately 2,500–3,750 in 1998, but with a poor prognostication for the future.
The South China tigerP. t. amoyensis occurs in fragmented regions of Guangdong, Hunan, Fujian, Jiangxi, Hubei, and Henan. Sightings of this subspecies have been of lone animals only. The bones of the tiger are used in Chinese traditional medicine, although a tiger breeding station has been established for this purpose. The South China tiger numbered only about 20 isolated individuals in 1998 and extinction is almost inevitable.
The Indochinese tigerP. t. corbetti is found in Malaysia, Thailand, and Indo-China, in fragmented areas only. In 2004 researchers discovered a new subspecies of tiger in the Malay Peninsula, named P. tigris jacksoni (in honour of the work carried out by tiger conservationist Peter Jackson), now also known as Malayan tigers.
The Sumatran tigerP. t. sumatrae, smaller than the Indian, is found in all eight provinces of Sumatra. Its jungle habitat is under constant threat: companies plunder the forest for timber and minerals, and then farmers, often transplanted from other parts of Indonesia, move in and take over the land, often ruining it after a few years owing to poor farming practices. In 1998 it was estimated that there were only 500 Sumatran tigers left in the wild and 235 in captivity. Sumatran tigers were isolated from other tigers 6,000–12,000 years ago and possess genetic markers not found in other species, evidence that they could constitute a separate species.
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