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Scientific classification

Tigers (Panthera tigris) are mammals of the Felidae family, one of four 'big cats' to belong to the Panthera genus. Tigers are predatory carnivores. There are eight separate subspecies of tiger, three of which are extinct and one of which is almost certain to become so in the near future. Their historical range (severely diminished today) ran through Russia, Siberia, Iran and Afghanistan, India, China and South-East Asia, including the Indonesian islands.

Most tigers live in forests (for which their camouflage is ideally suited) and grasslands. Of all the big cats, only the tiger and jaguar are strong swimmers, and tigers may often be found bathing in ponds, lakes and rivers. Tigers hunt alone, and their diet consists primarily of medium-sized herbivores such as Barking deer, sambar, elk, chital, Swamp deer, Red deer, rusa deer, wild pigs and bison, but they will also take larger prey if the circumstances demand it.

Subspecies and Estimated Populations

The Amur Tiger (formerly the Siberian tiger, alternately the Northeast China or Manchurian tiger), Panthera tigris altaica, is now confined almost totally to a very restricted part of eastern Russia. There are thought to be between 150 and 400 of these tigers in the wild today, and many populations are no longer considered to be genetically viable[?], meaning that they are subject to potentially catastrophic inbreeding.

The Balinese Tiger, Panthera tigris balica, has always been limited to the island of Bali. These tigers were hunted to extinction - the killing of the last Balinese tiger is thought to have been at Sumbar Kima, West Bali on 27th September, 1937; this was an adult tigress. No Balinese tiger was ever held in captivity.

Bengal tiger
The Bengal Tiger, Panthera tigris tigris, is found through the forests and grasslands of Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India and Nepal. The estimated wild population of this subspecies is 2000-3000, most living in India. These tigers are under severe pressure from both habitat reduction and from poaching; some recipes in Chinese medicine (in particular cures for impotence) require parts of tigers. Project Tiger, an Indian conservation project launched in 1972, has had limited success in protecting this species.

The Caspian Tiger, Panthera tigris vergata, appears to have been made extinct in the late 1950s, but during or after 1947. Historically it ranged through Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Russia and Turkey.

The Corbetts Tiger or Indochinese Tiger, Panthera tigris corbetti is found in Cambodia, China, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. Estimates of its population vary between 1200-1800, but it seems likely that it is in the lower part of this range. The largest current population is in Malaysia, where illegal poaching is strictly controlled, but all existing populations are at extreme risk from habitat fragmentation[?] and inbreeding. In Vietnam, Almost three-quarters of the tigers killed end up providing stock for Chinese pharmacies and the tiger is seen by poor native people as a resource through which they can ease poverty.

The Javan Tiger, Panthera tigris sondaica, was limited to the Indonesian island of Java. It now seems likely that this subspecies was made extinct in the 1980s, as a result of hunting and habitat destruction, but the extinction of this subspecies was extremely probable from the 1950s onwards (when it is thought that fewer than 25 tigers remained in the wild).

The Sumatran tiger, Panthera tigris sumatrae, is found only on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. The wild population is estimated at between 400 and 500 animals, occurring predominantly in the island's five national parks. Recent genetic testing has revealed the presence of unique genetic markers, indicating that it may develop into a separate species, if it is not made extinct. This has led to suggestions that Sumatran tigers should have greater priority for conservation than any other subspecies. Habitat destruction is the main threat to the existing tiger population (logging continues even in the supposedly protected national parks), but 66 tigers were recorded as being shot and killed between 1998 and 2000 - nearly 20% of the total population.

The South Chinese tiger (also the Amoy or Xiamen tiger), Panthera tigris amoyensis, is the most critically endangered subspecies of tiger, and will eventually become extinct. It seems likely that the last known wild South Chinese tiger was shot and killed in 1994, but no live tigers have been seen in their natural habitat for the last 20 years. In 1959, Mao Zedong declared the tiger to be a pest, and numbers quickly fell from 4000 or so to approximately 200 in 1976. In 1977 the Chinese government reversed the law, and banned the killing of wild tigers, but this appears to have been too late to save the subspecies. There are currently 59 known captive Chinese tigers, all within China, but these are known to be descended from only 6 animals. Thus, the genetic diversity[?] required to maintain the subspecies no longer exists, making its eventual extinction certain.


Colour and Appearance

The ground of the coat may be any colour from yellow to orange/red, with white areas on the chest, neck, and the inside of the legs. A common recessive variant is the White tiger, which may occur with the correct combination of parents. Black or melanistic[?] tigers have been reported, but no live specimen has ever been recorded.

The stripes of most tigers vary from brown/grey to pure black, although white tigers have far less apparent stripes. The form and density of stripes differs between subspecies, but most tigers have in excess of 100 stripes. The now extinct Javan tiger may have had far more than this. The pattern of stripes is unique to each individual animal, and thus could potentially be used to identify individuals, much in the same way as fingerprints[?] are used to identify people. This is not, however, a preferred method of identification, due to the difficulty of recording the stripe pattern of a wild tiger. It seems likely that the purpose of stripes is camouflage, serving to hide these animals from their prey (few large animals have colour vision as capable as that of humans - so the colour is not so great a problem as one might suppose).


Different subspecies of tigers have somewhat different characteristics. In general, male tigers may weigh between 150 and 310 kilograms and females between 100 and 160. The males are between 2.6 and 3.3 metres in length, and the females are between 2.3 and 2.75 metres in length. Of the more common subspecies, the Corbetts tigers are the smallest and the Amur tigers are the largest.

A Bengal Tiger

See also: Smilodon (formerly known as the Sabertooth tiger)

External links and references

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