|The male Siberian or Amur Tiger, with a total body length in excess of 10 ft and weighing up to 300 kg is by far the largest and most powerful member of the cat family. – however overall body size varies considerably throughout the five sub-species – the female Sumatran being almost 3 ft smaller. With exception of the lion, the tiger is probably the most easily recognised of all wild cats – its fur which ranges from orange to brownish yellow with a white chest and belly is covered with broken vertical black/dark brown stripes. The length of the fur is longer in the Amur tiger which inhabits the colder forested regions of eastern Russia and northern China. However, seasonal variation occurs throughout the species, with the winter markings often being paler and less well defined in the longer winter coat. Males of all sub-species also exhibit longer fur in the form of a ruff, around the back of the head, this is specially pronounced in the Sumatran male.
In general the tiger is a forest dweller but can also be found in grass land and swamp margins beyond woodland areas – they are never far from a source of water, are strong swimmers and have a particular love of bathing in pools and lakes in hotter regions. Principally, tigers are nocturnal hunters although in protected areas away from human intervention the animal is often active during the day. Although habitat dictates the type of animal that it hunts, the tiger prefers larger prey, such as wild boar, buffalo and deer, but also hunts fish, monkeys and various small mammals if it preferred food source is unavailable. The tiger is often regarded as a cautious hunter, stalking as close as it can to the rear its prey before making the final charge. Depending on the size of its prey the tigers killing bite is usually to the throat or neck of its victim – with smaller animals a bite to the neck is often sufficient to sever the spinal chord, whilst with larger prey the throat bite is preferred, gripping the animal until it finally suffocates. As in common with many cats the tiger will cache its food supply, hiding it under loose vegetation, returning to feed on the carcass over several days. Although, with the exception of mother and cubs learning to hunt, it is generally a solitary hunter, the tiger will often share its food with others of its family group.
The tiger more than any of the big cats, has earned a reputation of a man-eater. In the Sundarbans Reserve in the swamp lands along the coast of the Bay of Bengal it has been reported that tigers have attacked fishermen in their boats – however such unprovoked attacks are rare. Confrontation mainly occurs when humans stray into reserved areas to collect firewood or food and here, more often than not, it is by old or injured tigers unable to compete for normal prey sources.
Until recently, when the study of tigers in their natural habitat has increased due to the establishment of protected reserves, little has been known of the life style of the animal. However today we know much more of the tigers daily routine and social activities. Although in many ways a solitary animal, patrolling and marking its territory with urine sprays and scrapes the male tiger will often spend time with its mate and offspring. The males territory usually encompasses that of more than one female and is rigorously protected against intrusion from other neighbouring males.
The typical litter is between 2 to 3 cubs, which are born some 3 to 4 months after mating. The young tigers will stay with their mothers in a family group for up to two years, learning the skills of hunting before separating to take up their independence . Young males may travel far, living a solitary life before establishing their own territory, often by ousting older or injured males. On the other hand young females often stay close to their mother and in some cases even share parts of her territory.
Although popular in some zoos, White Bengal Tigers, are extremely rare in the wild – the last sighting of a white tiger in its natural habitat was near Rewa in Central India back in 1951. This male tiger was captured by the Maharaja of Rewa and named Mohan – it is this animal that most of the white tigers in captivity today are related. The white tiger is not a true albino – it simply has less dark coloured pigment in its coat – this is sometime known as a ‘chinchilla’ mutation. The white tiger is not pure white but has brown stripes and blue eyes. There is some concern about the keeping of white tigers in zoos. These cats, are by nature, extremely inbred and possibly not of pure bred Indian descent. Some suggest that they are taking up valuable cage space and breeding resources and this is to the detriment of other pure bred and more threatened sub species.
The tiger was once found throughout most of southern, eastern and central Asia along with small pockets in the Middle East. Today at least three of the subspecies of tiger -Caspian in the Middle East and west central Asia – Balinese and Javan from the islands of Bali and Java are now extinct. Of the remaining five subspecies the most numerous is the Bengal or Indian with a population of between 3,500 and 4,000. The Indian government has played a big part in the conservation of the Bengal – in the early 1970, s they established Project Tiger and opened a number of reserves in which to protect the animal. However poaching of the animal for its furs and other body parts is still a major threat. The Chinese tiger, outlawed by the communist government of the 1960, as a threat to the peoples food source and the Siberian, suffering from the destruction and loss of its natural habitat, have slumped to near extinction. Without intervention it is probable that these two subspecies will disappear forever from their natural habitat.
In many ways the tiger today stands at a cross-roads – behind it lay years of depletion through over hunting and loss of natural habitat – if this trend continues the road ahead is one of total extinction of the wild tiger. However, two further paths lay open, those of conservation in its natural habitat and controlled management of existing captive animals. Just which path the tiger takes is not up to the animal – but up to us.