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International Tiger Day: How are tigers faring now?

  • Once ranging widely across Asia, the awe-inspiring tiger has now vanished from more than 93 percent of its former range.
  • Only about 3,200 wild tigers remain and the species is currently listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List.
  • Mongabay takes a look at how the six surviving tiger subspecies are faring in a human-dominated world.

Today is dedicated to the largest of the big cats — the tiger (Panthera tigris).

This awe-inspiring animal once ranged widely across Asia. But now, the animal has vanished from more than 93 percent of its former range.

Only 3,000 to 4,000 wild tigers remain and the species is currently listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List. Three subspecies of tigers — the Bali tiger (P. t. balica), the Caspian tiger (P. t. virgata), and the Javan tiger (P. t. sondaica) — have become extinct.

But six tiger subspecies still roam the earth. So how are these tigers faring in a human-dominated world? Mongabay takes a look.

Historical range of tiger is shown in pale yellow and current range (2006) in green. Map source: Fate of Wild Tigers: Sanderson, E., Forrest, J., Loucks, C., Ginsberg, J., Dinerstein, E., Seidensticker, J., Leimgruber, P., Songer, M., Heydlauff, A., O’Brien, T., Bryja, G., Klenzendorf, S., Wikramanayake, E. (2006). The Technical Assessment: Setting Priorities for the Conservation and Recovery of Wild Tigers: 2005–2015. License: Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic.

Bengal tiger (P. t. tigris)

This tiger, found in South and Southeast Asia, is the commonest of the six surviving tiger subspecies. The majority of the Bengal tigers are found in India, while small populations also occur in Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China and Myanmar.

Populations of the Bengal tiger are declining and fewer than 2,400 individuals remain in in small, fragmented sub-populations. While some recent estimates indicate that Bengal tiger numbers might be increasing, this has been widely contested. The tiger’s range and population, according to the IUCN, continues to contract.

Bengal tigers are doing better than the other tiger subspecies. But they continue to face intense pressure from mining and other developmental activities that threaten to destroy the forests that they dwell in. Their prey numbers have also fallen across their range, and they frequently come into conflict with people.

Poaching remains one of the biggest threats to the tigers. Tiger parts (such as skin and bones) are high-demand commodities on the Chinese market, and India accounts for most tiger part seizures, according to a 2013 report by TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network.

A Bengal tiger (Panthera tigris tigris) in the wild in Ranthambhore National Park, Rajasthan, India. Photo by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen, Wikimedia Commons, License CC BY-SA 3.0.

Indochinese tiger (P. t. corbetti)

Occurring in Southeast Asia, numbers of Indochinese tigers have been plummeting. In 2010, just 350 of the big cats were estimated to survive in the wild.

In fact, this tiger subspecies has declined so severely that its status is fast approaching the threshold for Critically Endangered, according to the IUCN.

Most populations of the Indochinese tiger are small and isolated, and not viable. In April this year, for example, conservationists announced that tigers are “functionally extinct” in Cambodia since there were no breeding populations of tigers in the country. The tiger is also believed to have gone extinct from southwestern China and Laos PDR. In Vietnam, only 20 indochinese tigers are estimated to survive.

The only place where these tigers may be recovering is in Thailand’s protected areas, according to a study published early this year in Conservation Biology. In Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary in Thailand, tiger numbers have increased from 35 to 90, the study found. In fact, the tiger population in Huai Kha Khaeng may be the only one that is growing in Southeast Asia, conservationists say, thanks to an increase in anti-poaching efforts.

Most populations of the Indochinese tiger are small, isolated and not viable. Photo by Lotse, Wikimedia Commons, License: CC BY-SA 3.0.

Malayan tiger (P. t. jacksoni)

The Malayan tiger was recognized as a new subspecies, separate from the Indochinese tiger, in 2004. Scientists named the tiger subspecies P. t. jacksoni after Peter Jackson, a famous tiger conservationist.

Inhabiting the southern and central parts of Peninsular Malaysia, the Malayan tiger was officially listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List last year. The tiger’s numbers have declined by more than 25 percent in just one generation (or around 7 years), and now fewer than 250 mature wild Malayan tigers are estimated to survive. Moreover, no sub-population of this tiger subspecies has more than 50 individuals.

Apart from shrinking habitat and prey base, poaching is a major threat to Malayan tigers. Analysis by TRAFFIC found that body parts equivalent to at least 94 tigers were seized from Malaysia between 2000 and 2012.

In 2013, officials caught a local man with eight tiger skins and 22 bags of tiger bones in his house in northern Peninsular Malaysia. He was sentenced to 12 months in jail and fined around $49,000.

Malayan tiger at the Cincinnati Zoo. Photo by Greg Hume, Wikimedia Commons, License: CC BY-SA 3.0.

Siberian tiger (P. t. altaica)

In the 1930s, the Siberian (or Amur) tiger had nearly vanished due to hunting, with only 20 to 30 animals thought to remain in the wild. But conservationists persevered, and over decades, tiger numbers rose, bouncing up to around 500 individuals, according to a 2015 estimate. The IUCN even revised the Siberian tiger’s Red List category from Critically Endangered to Endangered in 2007.

More than 95 percent of Siberian tigers now occur in Russia. Some tigers have also been spotted at the Russia-China border, and camera traps have caught individual tigers across the border in China over recent years. A camera trap video, for example, showed a family of tigers–a mom and two cubs–for the first time in China last year, indicating that the subspecies might be breeding there. North Korea might also potentially harbor Siberian tigers.

While the current population of Siberian tigers is believed to be stable, these tigers continue to be threatened by poaching, low genetic diversity and habitat loss. Illegal logging of Russia’s forests continues to threaten the tigers’ prey base.

Siberian tiger at Leipzig zoo. Photo by Appaloosa, Wikimedia Commons, License: CC BY-SA 3.0.

South China tiger (P. t. amoyensis)

This tiger subspecies is believed to be “functionally extinct” in the wild as not a single individual of this subspecies has been spotted in the wild in the last 25 years.

In the 1950s, South China tiger numbers were estimated to be around 4,000 individuals. But after Mao Zedong declared it a pest in 1959, the subspecies was hunted to near extinction. By 1996, South China tiger numbers fell to around 30.

This tiger is currently listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List. A few individuals may still occur in the wild, but conservationists believe that the population might not be viable.

The South China tiger currently occurs in zoos, and a captive-breeding project in South Africa aims to reintroduce them to China’s wilderness. However, conservationists fear that these tigers may no longer possess the genetic diversity necessary to establish a viable wild population in the long run. There is also a lack of suitable habitat and prey base in China.

Many scientists believe that the South China tiger is the “stem” subspecies from which all other tigers have evolved.

South China tiger at Shanghai Zoo. Photo by J. Patrick Fischer, Wikimedia Commons, License: CC BY-SA 3.0.

Sumatran tiger (P. t. sumatrae)

This is the only surviving subspecies of tigers that once inhabited Indonesia’s islands. The other two subspecies of the Sunda Islands group of tigers — the Bali tiger and the Javan tiger — are now extinct.

Listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List, an estimated 400 Sumatran tigers are believed to survive in the wild.

Populations of the Sumatran tiger are declining, mainly due to habitat loss fueled by expansion of oil palm and Acacia plantations. Illegal trade, too, is a big threat to the tigers. In January this year, for example, Indonesian police caught two men involved in the selling of Sumatran tiger parts.

The Sumatran tiger is geographically and genetically isolated from all living mainland tigers, and some scientists believe that it may even be a separate species, not just a different subspecies.

An estimated 400 Sumatran tigers are believed to survive in the wild. Photo by Monka Betley, released under license GFDL.