The tiger (Panthera tigris), a member of the Felidae family, is the largest of the four “big cats” in the genus Panthera. The tiger is native to much of eastern and southern Asia, and is an apex predator and an obligate carnivore. The larger tiger subspecies are comparable in size to the biggest extinct felids, reaching up to 3.3 metres (11 ft) in total length, weighing up to 300 kilograms (660 pounds), and having canines up to 4 inches long. Aside from their great bulk and power, their most recognisable feature is a pattern of dark vertical stripes that overlays near-white to reddish-orange fur, with lighter underparts. The most numerous tiger subspecies is the Bengal tiger, while the largest is the Siberian tiger.
Tigers have a lifespan of 10–15 years in the wild, but can live longer than 20 years in captivity. They are highly adaptable and range from the Siberian taiga to open grasslands and tropical mangrove swamps.
They are territorial and generally solitary animals, often requiring large contiguous areas of habitat that support their prey demands. This, coupled with the fact that they are indigenous to some of the more densely populated places on earth, has caused significant conflicts with humans. Three of the nine subspecies of modern tiger have gone extinct, and the remaining six are classified as endangered, some critically so. The primary direct causes are habitat destruction, fragmentation, and hunting.
Historically, tigers have existed from Mesopotamia and the Caucasus throughout most of South and East Asia. Today, the range of the species is radically reduced. All surviving species are under formal protection, yet poaching, habitat destruction, and inbreeding depression continue to threaten the tigers.
Tigers are among the most recognisable and popular of the world’s charismatic megafauna. They have featured prominently in ancient mythology and folklore, and continue to be depicted in modern films and literature. Tigers appear on many flags and coats of arms, as mascots for sporting teams, and as the national animal of several Asian nations, including India.
In the past, tigers were found throughout Asia, from the Caucasus and the Caspian Sea to Siberia and Indonesia. Today the range of the tiger is only 7% of what it used to be. Furthermore, within the past decade alone, the estimated area known to be occupied by tigers has declined by 41%.
During the 19th century, the tiger completely vanished from western Asia and became restricted to isolated pockets in the remaining parts of their range. Today, their range is fragmented, and certain parts degraded, and extends from India in the west to China and Southeast Asia in the east. The northern limit is close to the Amur River in south eastern Siberia. The only large island inhabited by tigers today is Sumatra. Tigers vanished from Java and Bali during the 20th century. In Borneo they are known only from fossil remains.
Tiger habitats will usually include sufficient cover, proximity to water, and an abundance of prey. Bengal Tigers live in many types of forests, including wet; evergreen; the semi-evergreen of Assam and eastern Bengal; the mangrove forest of the Ganges Delta; the deciduous forest of Nepal, and the thorn forests of the Western Ghats. Compared to the lion, the tiger prefers denser vegetation, for which its camouflage colouring is ideally suited, and where a single predator is not at a disadvantage compared with the multiple felines in a pride.
Among the big cats, only the tiger and jaguar are strong swimmers; tigers are often found bathing in ponds, lakes, and rivers. During the extreme heat of the day, they often cool off in pools. Tigers are excellent swimmers, and are able to carry prey through the water.
There are nine recent subspecies of tiger, three of which are extinct. Their historical range (severely diminished today) ran through Bangladesh, Siberia, Iran, Afghanistan, India, China, and southeast Asia, including some Indonesian islands. The surviving subspecies, in descending order of wild population, are:
The Bengal tiger or the Royal Bengal tiger (Panthera tigris tigris) is the most common subspecies of tiger and is found primarily in India and Bangladesh. It lives in varied habitats: grasslands, subtropical and tropical rainforests, scrub forests, wet and dry deciduous forests, and mangroves. Males in the wild usually weigh 205 to 227 kg (450 to 500 lb), while the average female will weigh about 141 kg. However, the northern Indian and the Nepalese Bengal tigers are somewhat bulkier than those found in the south of the Indian Subcontinent, with males averaging around 235 kilograms (520 lb). While conservationists already believed the population to be below 2,000, the most recent audit by the Indian Government’s National Tiger Conservation Authority has estimated the number at just 1,411 wild tigers (1165–1657 allowing for statistical error), a drop of 60% in the past decade. Since 1972, there has been a massive wildlife conservation project, known as Project Tiger, to protect the Bengal tiger. Despite increased efforts by Indian officials, poaching remains rampant and at least one Tiger Reserve (Sariska Tiger Reserve) has lost its entire tiger population to poaching. The passing of the Forest Rights Act by the Indian government in 2006 has worsened the situation as evidence has shown that human habitats and tigers cannot co-exist and has pushed the Indian tiger on the brink of extinction. However, another census by the government in 2011 using better counting methods showed a rise of 20%, taking the numbers to 1,706.
The Indochinese Tiger (Panthera tigris corbetti), also called Corbett’s tiger, is found in Cambodia, China, Laos, Burma, Thailand, and Vietnam. These tigers are smaller and darker than Bengal tigers: Males weigh from 150–190 kg (330–420 lb) while females are smaller at 110–140 kg (240–310 lb). Their preferred habitat is forests in mountainous or hilly regions. Estimates of the Indochinese tiger population vary between 1,200 to 1,800, with only several hundred left in the wild. All existing populations are at extreme risk from poaching, prey depletion as a result of poaching of primary prey species such as deer and wild pigs, habitat fragmentation and inbreeding. In Vietnam, almost three-quarters of the tigers killed provide stock for Chinese pharmacies.
The Malayan Tiger (Panthera tigris jacksoni), exclusively found in the southern part of the Malay Peninsula, was not considered a subspecies in its own right until 2004. The new classification came about after a study by Luo et al. from the Laboratory of Genomic Diversity Study, part of the National Cancer Institute of the United States. Recent counts showed there are 600–800 tigers in the wild, making it the third largest tiger population, behind the Bengal tiger and the Indochinese tiger. The Malayan tiger is the smallest of the mainland tiger subspecies, and the second smallest living subspecies, with males averaging about 120 kg and females about 100 kg in weight. The Malayan tiger is a national icon in Malaysia, appearing on its coat of arms and in logos of Malaysian institutions, such as Maybank.