The tiger has become an increasingly rare sight across its home range. Persecution by human beings who have expanded their footprint over the past two centuries is the primary reason for its decline. A hundred years ago, there were 100,000 tigers living across a vast swathe of Eurasia, from Turkey in the west to Korea in the east. Now, they occupy only a fraction of that range and number around 4,000. Things look increasingly bleak with both India (the tiger’s last major refuge) and China (the world’s new economic powerhouse) unable or unwilling to turn the corner. India has been a spectacular failure when it comes to protecting critical tiger habitat while the Chinese demand for tiger parts (to be turned into traditional medicine) continues to rake in profits for poachers and smugglers.
It will be a crying shame if the tiger disappears. But it seems inevitable. The species is the product of millions of years of evolution, an apex predator that has succeeded in colonizing a wide range of habitats – mountains (Bhutan), scrub (Rajasthan), jungle (Central India), mangroves (Bengal), rain forests (Malaya) and taiga (Manchuria). It can be seen in the number of tiger subspecies that evolved over time. The extinction or near-disappearance of some of them is a reflection of the tiger’s declining fortunes across its range. Unlike lions and leopards, it has inhabited a part of the world (South, South East and East Asia) where human numbers have been historically high. Somehow, it managed to cling on. How long it can do so will depend on the efforts undertaken by governments and local communities.
Here’s a list of the different tiger subspecies known to man:
- Siberian Tiger (Panthera tigris altaica)
- Caspian Tiger (Panthera tigris virgata)
- South China Tiger (Panthera tigris amoyensis)
- Indochinese Tiger (Panthera tigris corbetti)
- Malayan Tiger (Panthera tigris jacksoni)
- Sumatran Tiger (Panthera tigris sumatrae)
- Javan Tiger (Panthera tigris sondaica)
- Bali Tiger (Panthera tigris balica)
- Bengal Tiger (Panthera tigris tigris)
Of these the Caspian, Javan and Bali subspecies have gone extinct while the South China tiger survives only in captivity.
Image Attribution: The image above is sourced from Wikimedia Commons and shows the photograph of a Javan tiger taken by the Dutch naturalist and conservator Andries Hoogerwerf in the year 1938, in what is now the Ujung Kulon National Park at the western tip of Java. Within fifty years, the subspecies had gone extinct.