Scientific Name: Panthera tigris
IUCN Red List Status: Endangered
*Since 2017, the IUCN has recognized two subspecies of tiger, the continental tiger and the Sudan island tiger. Island tigers are found in Sumatra as the Sumatran tiger (Panthera tigris sondaica). Continental tigers (Panthera tigris tigris) include the Bengal, Malayan, Indochinese, and Siberian (Amur).
Habitat: Tigers can readily adapt to a variety of habitats when the space is available, living in taigas, savannas, tropical forests, grasslands, and evergreen forests. Their current range includes; India, Southeast Asia, Western China, and some areas in Russia. They can also possibly be found in Bangladesh, Nepal, and Bhutan.
In the Wild: 6.5 to 10 years
In Captivity: 16 to 23 years
Recognized Extant Populations
Bengal Tiger – P. t. tigris
Indochinese Tiger – P. t. corbetti
Malayan Tiger – P. t. jacksoni
Siberian (Amur) Tiger – P. t. altaica
Sumatran Tiger – P. t. sumatrae
South China Tiger – P. t. amoyensis *
*Functionally Extinct in the Wild
Javan Tiger – P. t. sondaica
Caspian Tiger – P. t. virgata
Bali Tiger – P. t. balica
Territoriality: Tigers are generally solitary animals as adults and maintain an exclusive territory and home range. Males will overlap their territory with 1 to 3 females, and their territory ranges from about 8 square miles to 154 square miles.
They mark their territory by scratching trees, rubbing areas with scent glands on their face, spraying urine, and distributing feces around their home range. They will also vocalize to warn competing tigers or attract mates. Tigers are also able to communicate with their tails. When relaxed, it will remain loose and hanging. When a tiger is threatened, they will move their tail rapidly from side to side to symbolize aggression. When tigers come across scents associated with territory marking, mating, and aggression, they will curl their lips and stick out their tongue, a motion known as the Flehmen’s response. This response allows the scent to travel over the Jacobson’s organ, a specialized olfactory (related to sense of smell) organ on the roof of their mouth. Tigers use scent to communicate reproductive status or to identify competitive tiger territory, as warning signs to stay away.
Weight: 220 to 660 pounds
Length: 6 to 10 feet (head to tail)
Tigers are the largest of members of the big cat family and are powerful apex predators. They are sexually dimorphic, as males are larger than females. Their coloration and body size varies between individuals, and are recognized for their red/orange coat with black stripes. Their coats have adapted to survive the cold with long, dense fur. In warmer areas, their fur is thinner and shorter to regulate their body temperature. The undersides of limbs, chest, belly, throat, and muzzle are a lighter or white coloration.
Every tiger has a different stripe pattern, just like a fingerprint; Their stripes are also pigmented on their skin. A tiger’s stripe pattern acts as disruptive camouflage, breaking up their large outline to better hide in the tall grasses and bush. The orange coloration helps them blend in with their surroundings. Their white spots on the back of their ears act as warning signals, communicating a threat by twisting them around, like eyes in the back of their head.
In the early 1900s, there were approximately 100,000 tigers throughout their natural home range. Due to extreme habitat loss, fragmentation, prey depletion, agricultural development, and human persecution, the population has been reduced by 90% in two decades to approximately 3,900 individuals within 5 to 7% of their native habitat. Poaching, as well as retaliatory killings from farmers, also caused this significant population decline. Fragmented habitats cause breeding difficulties. Within the 20th century, three of the nine tiger populations became extinct (Caspian, Javan, and Bali), with the South China tiger not being seen in the wild within 20 years, and is viewed as functionally extinct.
Gestation Period: 96 to 111 days
Litter Size: 1 to 5 cubs (2 to 3 average)
Female tigers reach sexual maturity between four to five years old, and males reach sexual maturity between three to four years old. Females come into estrus every three to nine weeks and are receptive to mates between three to six days. They will attract mates by scent marking and vocalization throughout their habitat range. The females and males come together to breed, and the females solely take care of the cubs. Males do not provide any care to their cubs. The mother will find a safe area or den protected by dense brush to hide her cubs from other predators and threats. Cubs are born blind and helpless, relying entirely on their mothers. One to two weeks after being born, their eyes will open. During these vulnerable stages of growth, the mother spends the majority of her time nursing and protecting her young.
Between 90 to 100 days, cubs will start weaning from their mother. During this time, she will start bringing them solid food. Tiger cubs learn critical hunting skills between five and six months of age and will start leaving the den to join their mother on a hunt. They learn how to stalk successfully, ambush, and kill prey from their mother. At two to three years old, the young tigers will leave their mother’s territory to establish their home ranges. The juvenile mortality rate is high due to the lack of protection and care provided by their mothers.
Diet and Hunting Behaviors
Tigers are obligate carnivores and only consume meat to survive. The availability of sufficient prey items is vital for their survival. As large predators, they must kill between 50 to 60 large prey items per year. They are opportunistic hunters and will prey upon what is available within their habitat range. Preferred prey is deer and wild pigs, but they will hunt water buffalo, elephant, and rhino. They may also prey upon birds, fish, rodents, insects, reptiles, and other mammals such as primates and porcupines. Females kill 50% more prey when raising cubs to sustain enough energy to produce milk and provide food for them.
Being ambush predators, tigers will stalk their prey by sneaking up as close as possible without being seen. Tigers choose to hunt alone and primarily at night. By doing so, they have an advantage of stealth. They have excellent night vision, seeing much better than their prey. Tigers prefer to hunt within dense vegetation, camouflaging themselves from their kill. They can move without being heard or seen by carefully placing each paw to remain silent. If the tiger is seen or heard, the animals being hunted will alarm each other with loud warning signals, and run away from danger. When this occurs, the tiger will lose it’s kill because they do not chase after their meal for long distances. They can pounce 20 to 30 feet in front of them, and latch onto their prey with powerful, retractable claws. They use 3-inch canine teeth to wedge between their prey’s spine, severing the spinal cord, and successfully subduing their meal. Tigers are successful in 10 to 15% of their attempted hunts.
Tigers help regulate populations of large herbivores within their home range, protecting the ecosystem from overgrazing and overpopulation. They are considered a keystone species, meaning that other species within the same ecosystem largely depend on these predators to remain in equilibrium. If removed from this ecosystem, it would drastically change and have a negative impact on all other species.
Tigers cannot purr. They are part of the big cat family because they roar.
To show affection, tigers make a noise called a chuff, that sounds similar to a raspberry.
Tigers can weigh up to 700 pounds and can be 11 feet long!
Tigers are excellent swimmers and love water. They often use pools to keep cool.
Threats and Conservation
As an endangered species, tigers face many threats of extinction within the next decade if they are not protected. Human-wildlife conflict is causing unrelenting pressure for tiger survival. Poaching, deforestation and habitat loss, habitat fragmentation, and retaliatory killings are devastating tiger populations. They are forced to compete with the ever-growing human populations for space and survival. All tiger subspecies are endangered and must be protected to ensure their conservation for generations to come.
Poaching is still a lucrative industry and a primary threat to big cats, as a tiger’s coat is extremely valuable on the black market. Their body parts are also utilized in traditional Asian medicines, creating tiger bone wine, consuming tiger meat, and making tonics from their body parts. Every organ is sold on the black market, and it is believed that consuming tiger bones and body parts can cure arthritis, epilepsy, and increase blood circulation. Their skin and other parts are used for decor as a status symbol, indicating wealth and success throughout Asia and across the world. Even though tiger hunting is prohibited by law, the high price for tiger products continues to fuel the illegal black market for endangered species. Tiger population numbers have shrunk by 50% in only a few generations due to this lucrative market.
The problem lies in having limited resources to protect areas in countries where tigers live. Even places that have strong enforcement of laws continue to fight with poachers and illegal killings. Thousands of acres of pristine tiger habitat are uninhabited by the big cat due to poaching. When a single tiger is killed, it has a ripple effect on other tigers, as well as the entire ecosystem. If a mother is killed, likely, her offspring will not survive without her care. When a male tiger is killed, other males compete for territory, potentially leading to more death among the population.
Tigers are under extreme threat due to deforestation due to developing agriculture, human population growth and development, and especially monoculture farming for palm oil plantations. Palm oil can be found in 50% of grocery products within the United States from processed foods, peanut butter, deodorant, shampoo, and beauty products. Millions of acres of rainforest in Borneo, Sumatra, and Indonesia are being destroyed. Tigers have already lost 93-96% of their historic natural home range. By the continual growth or monoculture plantations, this poses an imminent threat to tigers and their possible extinction in the near future.
As wildlife shares highly populated areas with humans, Asia is rapidly developing land into agriculture, commercial logging, and urbanized areas, and reducing prey populations due to the bushmeat trade. Overhunting by humans depletes substantial prey populations for tigers, including wild deer and pigs, which are the primary food source for these large predators.
Tiger attacks on livestock cause retaliatory killings by farmers who are trying to protect their domestic animals. This presents an ongoing challenge for tiger conservation entities to reduce the high rates of tiger killings and to gain community support to save the tigers with advocacy and education. As the tiger’s habitat is depleted, they are forced to live in more human-populated areas, increasing human-wildlife conflict and retaliatory killings of tigers. These cats typically also end up on the black market.
What Is Being Done
As an apex predator, tigers are a vital link in maintaining rich biodiversity in surrounding ecosystems. They are an umbrella species, protecting tigers in the wild also protects many other species of flora and fauna around them. Biodiversity is essential to humans as well, providing ecosystem services like clean water and air, things that humans also need to survive and be healthy. By protecting a single tiger, roughly 25,000 acres of forest are also protected.
The future of the tiger range depends on Asian governments working together to create productive tiger habitats and corridors by conserving large areas of natural habitat. Due to the large clustering of populations, the focus is geared towards larger population concentrations for potential species recovery.
The RoundTable for Sustainable Palm Oil has initiated education and conservation efforts to spread awareness of the palm oil crisis. Companies that join the RSPO are held accountable for their sustainable practices and only using products that are not causing habitat destruction. By downloading a Palm Oil App on a smartphone application, consumers can view daily products and make choices in their regular buying to avoid unsustainable practices. Buying products that are FSC certified ensures that products come from responsibly managed forests following global sustainability standards. Rainforest certified coffee also ensures that the products purchased are not damaging valuable forest land for endangered species.
There are laws in place to protect endangered species, although a lack of law enforcement and regulation still needs to be seriously addressed. Tigers are protected under CITES Appendix I as an endangered species, in which this treaty is signed by 172 countries that these species cannot be commercially traded when threatened or endangered (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora). The Endangered Species Act is one of the world’s strictest environmental laws, making it illegal for endangered or threatened species to be killed, hunted, collected, or injured within the United States. The Rhinoceros and Tiger Conservation Act provides conservation programs and provides financial resources to protect these endangered species.
Conservation organizations are diligently working to monitor tiger populations and prey availability by using camera traps to collect data. By protecting and developing a more suitable habitat for tigers, the population will be able to recover. Eliminating the demand for tiger’s within the black market and preventing poaching and human-wildlife conflict are the main priorities of NGOs and conservation organizations to save tigers from extinction.
The key to species survival is immediate protection of the remaining wild populations, and recovering large habitat and corridors for the species to roam. Natural prey populations must also be managed sustainably. Mitigating human-wildlife conflicts between locals and tiger conservation is crucial to save the species from extinction.