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February 20, 2007
As recently as 50 years ago, eight subspecies of tigers roamed wild throughout Asia. Now only five remain, fighting against the push toward extinction.


In 1910, during the explosion of Western culture that followed the turn of the century and preceded World War I, there were estimated to be upwards of 40,000 tigers in India alone. By the mid 1960s naturalists working for the British government feared that fewer than 4,000 remained, and by 1972 the number of tigers in India, which were by this time research estimates based on scientific data, had dwindled to less than two thousand. Those numbers, which due to the elusive nature of the great cats have never more than scientific estimates, have always been the topic of fierce debate. The overall picture the trends paint, however, is unquestionable. Tigers are vanishing by the thousands. Last year in his 1999 report the director of India's Project Tiger confirmed that statistics indicating that poachers were killing more than one tiger per day in his country. As grim as that may sound, the reality is that out of all the nations in Southeast Asia falling within the tiger range, India's situation is the brightest. In countries such as Cambodia and Laos the estimation of tiger numbers, in lieu of solid information, is grim at best. Part of the difficulty in assessing and ultimately protecting the condition of tigers in the wild is the secretive lifestyle they, along with virtually all other cats, lead.

Of the eight tiger subspecies known to science at the turn of the last century, only five remain. Three branches from the evolutionary tree of life have been severed clean, tossed into the fires of time like coal into a blast furnace. They are simply gone; no zoos or nature preserves to save them. What many fail to understand is that the permanent disappearance of these animals rests solely on the shoulders of mankind and our modern civilization. Unlike earlier relatives such as the Saber tooth tiger, the great cats we see today are at the top of their food chain. Evolutionarily, biologically, and predatorily speaking, tigers are at that point on their time line in which they are in their prime. It is the hand of man that pushes them into the darkness of history, the killing of tigers a new enterprise in the dismal economic situation gripping most of Asia. There is also the highly publicized demand for tiger body parts in traditional Chinese medicine, a demand that is increasing with the acceptance of non-Western medicines in North America, in addition to the poaching of tigers and their prey, the marketing of their skins and bones, and the loss of available habitat as capitalism turns southeastern Asia from farmland to factory.

Of the decimated tiger subspecies, the Bali tiger (Panthera tigris balica), which once ruled the island which shares its name, was the first to be driven to extinction. The last tiger on the island is believed to have been killed by hunters in 1937. Unfortunately, the only documentation of the Bali tiger is what remains in trophy cases around the world. There are no photographs known to exist. The territory of the Caspian tiger (Panthera tigris virgata), which takes it's name from the great Middle Eastern sea, once ranged from the Mediterranean in Turkey through Afghanistan and Iran, into the central Asian mountains of Russia and modern day China. Although naturalists were aware of the Siberian tiger's dire situation, records and documentation are scarce, due in large part to the world's attention being turned to World War II during the time that the Caspian tiger made its final stand. The last known tiger died in captivity in the mid 1950s, propelling them into extinction. The Javan tiger (Panthera tigris sondaica), a close neighbor to the Bali tiger, roamed the Indonesian island of Java and was last seen in the wild in 1972. There is only one known photograph of a Javan tiger.

The five remaining subspecies of tiger number anywhere from 5000 to 7000 wild tigers across Central and Southern Asia, a startling fraction of their numbers only a hundred years ago. The Amur or Siberian tiger (Panthera tigris altaica) is the northernmost of the great tigers, living primarily in Southeastern Russia, with extremely small numbers in North Korea and China. Although nearly 500 Amur tigers survive in captivity, there are only an estimated three to four hundred still thought to exist in the wild. Amur tigers are the largest of the tiger subspecies, with males reaching nearly 11 feet in length and weighing up to 650 pounds. The Amur tigers generally have a paler orange coloring and their stripes are brown rather than black, with a white chest and stomach, and a thick white ruff of fur around its neck.

Although the Amur survived the century of technology and expansion, they did so very narrowly. The past hundred years have seen the tiger survive numerous wars and revolutions, only to be driven to the brink of extinction by poaching and deforestation. In the 1940s there were only 24 known Amur tigers in the wild, thanks to conservation efforts those numbers have increased but continue to fluctuate between 150 and 350 adults. Although the Amur is often spotted in northern China and Korea, their numbers there are so insignificant (less than 30 adults total) that its future depends entirely on the stabilization of the populations in Russia, but in the face of ongoing economic and political turmoil there the Amur's fate is as uncertain as ever.

The majority of Bengal tigers (Panthera tigris tigris) live in India, with smaller numbers in Nepal, Bangladesh and surrounding mountainous countries, and can be found in a wide range of habitats, from the cold, mountain forests of the Himalayas to the swamps and mangroves of the subcontinent's reedy lowlands, to the arid Indian peninsula. Male Bengals reach nearly 10 feet in length and can weigh up to 300 pounds, primarily dining on wild animals such as deer and the occasional head of cattle. Although tigers are relatively secure in India, recent decades have posed a new problem for the Bengal with the advent of interbreeding; while the country's zoos are overflowing with large cats, the majority of those in captivity are of questionable lineage and hence inappropriate for the purpose of conserving the Bengal's lineage.

An interesting side note to the Bengal is that legendary "White" tigers are simply a color variant of Bengal tigers (Panthera tigris tigris) and are rarely found in the wild. Every known instance of white or black tigers are color variations of Bengals. White tigers are only born to parents that both carry the recessive gene for white coloring. Subsequently, wild white tigers are quite rare and are sustained almost exclusively in zoos. White tigers are neither albinos (in which case they would have pink eyes), nor a separate species; they have "chocolate" brown stripes and blue eyes (although some slight variations in eye and stripe color have been seen in zoological breeding programs). Even more rare are melanistic tigers, commonly referred to as "black" tigers. These rare cats have pale yellow or white stripes on a black ground color and were thought to be mythical until 1992 when the skin of a melanistic tiger was recovered from smugglers in India. The existence of black tigers without stripes has been reported, but to date has been undocumented.

Little is known of the current status of the Indo-Chinese tiger (Panthera tigris corbetti), whose numbers are concentrated in inaccessible regions of Thailand, China, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and Malaysia. This subspecies primarily lives in the remote foothills and mountains lining the often-disputed borders between countries, where access to biologists has traditionally been restricted, or at the very least extremely dangerous. The Indo-Chinese tiger (Panthera tigris corbetti) is more compact and darker colored than neighboring Bengal tigers, with males an average 9 feet in length and with a weight of up to 400 pounds.

In addition to the difficult terrain in which they range, the Indo-Chinese tigers face a questionable future at the hands of regional governments. Although Thailand has established several departments to better assess the situation of its tigers, the nations surrounding it have been far less responsible. In Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and the former nation of Burma there are virtually no zoos or conservation departments, and poaching is a serious problem.

Of the five remaining tiger subspecies, the South China tiger (Panthera tigris amoyensis) is the most critically endangered, with less than 30 remaining in the wild. In addition, there are less than 50 South China tigers spread across only 18 zoos, all of which are located in China. One of the smallest tiger subspecies, males typically measure 8 feet in length and generally weigh no more than 325 pounds.

In addition to the size discrepancy, the stripes of the South China tiger are shorter, broader and are spaced farther apart than those of its Bengal and Siberian counterparts. Despite being considered both the evolutionary antecedent of all tigers and a staple character in Chinese art and culture, the South China tiger's numbers have been decimated in the past fifty years at the hands of the communist government's economic plan. After being declared "pests" in the 1950s, Chinese soldiers and civilians hunted the South China tiger relentlessly, bringing the population from over 4000 to its current state, which the Chinese Ministry of Forestry estimated in 1995 to be less than 20 adult cats. Unfortunately, this bleak estimation may only be wishful thinking, as there have been no official sightings of South China tigers in the wild since the mid 1960s, prompting many to fear that they have also become extinct as wild creatures.

Sumatran tigers (Panthera tigris sumatrae) are the smallest tiger subspecies, with the average male measuring 8 feet in length from head to tail and weighing in around 250 pounds. These cats primarily feed on wild deer and pigs and have no specific range area, other than their general concentration in lower elevations where there is a corresponding concentration of prey species. Scientific information on the numbers and habits of tigers in Sumatra is sketchy at best, and estimates of their numbers in the wild range anywhere from 100 to 800. While poaching is a problem, the most cause for alarm is Indonesia's rapid deforestation and loss of agricultural land, which has further diminished the already limited habitat suitable for the Sumatran cats. The Indonesian Department of Forestry and Conservation has recently made great efforts to cooperate with international agencies to develop a comprehensive management plan for both the wild tigers and the tigers in captivity. In addition to Indonesia's 70 captive cats, there are over 150 surviving abroad which are descended from wild-caught cats.

Of all the loss nature has endured at the hand of mankind, the plight of the tigers is one of the most troubling. Through iconography tigers have effectively become a part of everyday life around the world while remaining secluded in the mountains and forests of Southeast Asia. From a child's excitement at the circus, to the wholesomeness of a Winnie the Pooh film, to a bowl of frosted cereal, the vivid imagery projected through the strength and poise of a tiger is universal. Generation X lives with only one-twentieth of the wild tiger population of their grandparents' generation, and worldwide tiger populations continue to decline rapidly. Since the first decade of the 1900s, three entire subspecies have been wiped from the earth, never to be seen again, and unless effective conservation efforts can effect significant change the remaining five will follow.

SEE ALSO: www.savethetigerfund.org
SEE ALSO: www.wildaid.org

--
Eric J Herboth
Eric J. Herboth is the founder, publisher and Managing Editor of LAS magazine. He is a magazine editor, freelance writer, bike mechanic, commercial pilot, graphic designer, International Scout enthusiast and giver of the benefit of the doubt. He currently lives in rural central Germany with his two best friends, dog Awahni and cat Scout.

See other articles by Eric J Herboth.

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