Full grown Siberian Tiger (Panthera tigris altaica) lying on a rock
in the sun.
The Panthera tigris, as the magnificent tiger is known in formal scientific terms, is one of the largest of the wild cats to walk the surface of the earth. Its golden-red coat is characterised by bold black (or very dark brown) stripes, under which a strong, lithesome body is built for the hunt. The tiger’s eyes have haunted and mesmerised mankind for millennia, as this elegant creature has stalked alongside the human settlements that have entered into its natural territory.
The tiger is a mammal (that is, from the Mammalia class) and is placed within the Carnivora order. It comes from the Felidae family and the Panthera genus.
The Felidae Family
This scientific family refers to the entire biological group of the wild cats, of which every member is a strict carnivore. The members of this scientific family range from the common domestic cat to lions, panthers, jaguars, cougars, cheetahs, tigers and leopards, amongst many others.
The Panthera Genus
This genus consists of well-known cats like the tiger, lion, jaguar and leopard. Interestingly, these are the only cat species that are physically designed for and capable of roaring. This is especially due to the structure of the larynx, although there may be other minor physiological characteristics that set them apart in this regard too.
Asiatic Lioness (Panthera leo persica)
The elegance, power and mysterious beauty of the tiger have intrigued human beings for countless generations. Their sheer aesthetic splendour alone sets these majestic hunters apart. However, their physiology is not their only impressive feature. They are also renowned for their hunting abilities, their featuring in folklore and mythology, and their perceived value in the more traditional world of witchcraft’s medicinal system.
Tigers are originally from Siberia (today known as Manchurian or Siberian Tigers), which comprises almost the entire northern area of Asia. This country is characterised by extensive mountain ranges, deep valleys and dense forests; the ideal habitat in which the tiger can escape the threat of man. Because of the relatively low temperatures, even in the summer months, the tigers in Siberia enjoy thicker, warmer coats than those in more temperate areas. In fact, the physical appearance of the tiger (such as the density of its coat and its precise physical size) has much to do with the area in which it lives, as it needs to adapt to the different climatic conditions of its habitat.
There are three main tiger species that are still roaming the earth; namely 1) the Sumatran Tiger, 2) the Manchurian or Siberian Tiger, and 3) the Bengal or Indian Tiger. Note that the white tiger and the black tiger are a result of a rare colour morph, and are not defined species in their own rights. However, white tigers have only been known to occur within the Bengal species. Each species is differentiated based on its size, colour and markings.
The Sumatran Tiger
A resting Sumatran Tiger (Panthera tigris sumatrae)
As its name implies, this critically endangered tiger hails from the island of Sumatra, which is located in Indonesia. It is the smallest of the main species of tigers. Females measure approximately 7 feet (or 2.1 meters) in length and weigh about 200 pounds or just over 90 kilograms. Males are typically larges than their female counterparts, averaging a length of 8 feet or 2.4 metres and a weight of 265 pounds (equivalent to 120 kilograms).
The Manchurian or Siberian Tiger
A Siberian Tiger (Panthera tigris altaica)
in the snow
In stark contrast to the Sumatran species, this is the largest of the tigers. It is also sometimes known as the Amur Tiger and inhabits the area in the far east of Russia. There are only a few hundred of these animals left in the wild, and intense conservation efforts are underway to increase this number. The Manchurian Tiger stands at over a metre at shoulder height and is nearly 4 metres long (including its 1 metre long tail). This tiger weighs approximately 350 kilograms (or well over 700 pounds). Its canine teeth are an impressive 10 centimetres in length. Its natural habitat in Siberia is a cold one. Therefore, this tiger has, over the generations, grown a thicker, longer, shaggier coat than its counterparts that live in warmer climates. This adaptation keeps it protected from the snowy winters and icy winds.
The Bengal or Indian Tiger
Bengal Tiger (Panthera tigris tigris) crouching while drinking
This tiger subspecies originates in India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Bhutan. Although its numbers are the highest of all the tiger species worldwide, this is still an endangered species, with fewer than 2 500 individuals remaining in existence. The vast majority of these tigers are found in India, in which it is the national animal. There are various mutations of this species, including the white tiger and the black tiger (which has white or yellow stripes on a black coat). Male Bengals weigh an average of 221 kilograms (or just under 490 pounds), while females average 140 kilograms, which is equivalent to about 308 pounds. The Bengal Tiger features in Indian folklore.
Other significant subspecies are:
The Indochinese tiger (Corbett's tiger)(Panthera tigris corbetti)
in the water
• The South China Tiger – this is one of the 10 most endangered species in the world, and is characterised by its relatively small stature. The South China Tiger is likely already extinct in the wild, preserved only in captivity as far as human knowledge extends. Breeding efforts are underway in an effort to increase its numbers and restore this magnificent animal into the wild.
• The Indochinese Tiger – this is a relatively dark, small tiger found in Cambodia, China, Laos, Burma, Thailand, and Vietnam. There are only a few hundred of these animals left in the wild, while the total world population is under 2 000. Many of them are killed for Chinese medicine and the magical curative properties that they are believed to have.
• The Malayan Tiger – this tiger has the third-largest population in the world, despite the fact that there are only about 700 of these tigers in existence today. The Malayan Tiger is small, with females weighing only about 100 kilograms or 220 pounds and males a measly 120 kilograms or 264 pounds.
There are a number of subspecies that have already become extinct, largely at the hands of man. These are:
• The Bali Tiger
• The Javan Tiger
• The Caspian Tiger
This extinction is as a result of hunting, a loss of habitat and a decrease in the natural resources available to wild animals. Tigers are predators and, when their natural food is hunted or relocated due to the ever-increasing interference by human beings, they can no longer survive.
In terms of its natural habitat, the tiger prefers dense cover, such as thick forests. However, due to a shortage of the amount of space available to it, the subspecies have adapted to life in the rough terrains of the mountains or the reedy river beds, where moist jungles are not available to them. It is important for a tiger to have an escape from the heat and the midday sunshine, as these animals thrive in cooler conditions. During the hottest part of the day, the tigers will usually be found resting amongst cool vegetation, or even lingering in the refreshing waters of a nearby swamp or river. In fact, tigers are very good swimmers, and can swim long distances in search of food, if necessary.
A female tiger stalking her territory.
Unlike many of the other wild cats (leopards and cheetahs, for example), the tiger does not frequent the boughs of a tree. Although it is able to climb, it is not particularly adept at it, preferring to stay on the land.
The tiger is an impressive hunter, using its senses to stalk and capture prey with agility and precision. Its hearing is particularly sharp, and is used extensively to track and locate potential prey. Although its eyesight is good, tigers tend to ignore anything that remains immobile, even when it is nearby.
The most common prey that makes up the diet of most tigers include deer, wild pig, antelope, monkeys and porcupines. Tigers are strictly carnivorous and will eat whatever meat is available to them in the area in which they live. Therefore, they may also eat tortoises, cattle and even domestic pets, if these are within their capabilities and immediate proximity. When hunting, the tiger will usually stalk its prey and then surprise it by grabbing its neck, breaking it swiftly so as to minimise a struggle (and the pain and suffering that goes along with it). Then, the hunter will drag its catch to a more secluded spot to enjoy it in solitary peace. If it is not possible to find such solace with its kill, the tiger will rather eat its catch in a rush and leave whatever remains there are for scavenger animals, including birds.
Tigers are almost exclusively solitary animals, preferring to live, hunt and traverse their habitat alone. However, for a few weeks of every “on season” period, the males and females are brought together for mating purposes. During this period, males become very aggressive and possessive over the female with which they are mating. They will fight to the death if another male seeks to intervene. The specific months of the mating season is different for tigers in different areas.
Young tiger and mother
A female tiger will have her first pregnancy at about three years of age. She will have one litter every three years, on average. A litter of three or four cubs is born after a gestation period of between 105 and 113 day. But, litters can range between anything from one to six cubs. Unfortunately, cubs are prone to premature deaths and only one or two of a litter are likely to survive. The cubs will begin to hunt their own prey at seven months of age, but will remain with their mother until they are two years old, as she teaches them how to survive on their own in the relentless world of the wild. A tiger is fully grown at three years old.
When in the protective confines of a zoo, a tiger may live to be about 20 years old. However, in the wild, its life span is almost sure to be shorter. In its natural habitat, it is exposed to the elements, susceptible to injury or illness and reliant on its own strength to survive. On the other hand, being in captivity means physical protection, health care and limited contact with the dangerous elements.
Human beings remain the tiger’s most dangerous enemy; and the one that is responsible for its massive decline in numbers. Initially, the tigers were killed for the protection of the people that moved into its natural habitat. They were dangerous both for the human communities as well as their livestock, which was their means of survival. However, when the rural, agricultural people of Asia were introduced to firearms, the killing of tigers became a mere sport. In 1877 alone, more than 1 570 tigers were shot in British India. This is more than the entire population on earth of some of the tiger subspecies today. In addition, some traditional eastern cultures maintain that certain organs and body parts of the tiger have curative properties. Although illegal, tigers continue to be hunted to provide for these healers at an enormous financial cost, and gain to those involved.
Although there are now strict rules and regulations in place to protect tigers around the globe, their numbers have dwindled to such an extent that six of the eight subspecies are listed as being endangered.
Contrary to popular belief, it is unlikely that a tiger will attack a human being unless it is provoked or weakened from hunger. Tigers have, in fact, been known to walk alongside or behind people within the animal’s natural environment, not presenting any danger, or even a threat thereof. Still, in the rare cases that tigers have attacked humans, the animal has quickly been destroyed for the protection of human civilisations nearby.
The tiger is valuable, not only for its aesthetic beauty or impressive physiology, but also because it is fast becoming one of the world’s critically endangered species. In order to ensure that the generations following ours get to experience this exquisite wild cat, it is essential that all initiatives to protect it are supported and endorsed by the majority.