Tigers once roamed from Turkey to China and as far north as Russia and south to Indonesia. Today, they inhabit 6% of their ancient grounds and are on the brink of extinction. These beautiful cats are integral to ecosystems around the world and are an important cultural pillar for groups all over the world. Let’s take a look at these animals and learn: why are tigers endangered?
Why are tigers endangered?
Tigers are considered “Endangered” by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature). The IUCN is generally the gold standard for the status of animals and their conservation status across the world. While the entire tiger species as a whole is only listed as endangered, there are subspecies within that are either critically extinct or extinct altogether.
Historically, tigers became threatened in the first place due to hunting and poaching. Having a tiger trophy was a status symbol across much of the west, and hunting expeditions were incredibly common. Aside from a trophy, their pelts are beautiful and were often used as luxury rugs to indicate status and wealth. Their bones are also considered to have medicinal properties in China, although this is untrue. Tiger bone wine is a tonic given to strengthen bones in China or to represent a special gift, but it’s simply false. A dead tiger can be sold for parts today for about $60,000, making them popular targets for black market poachers.
While hunting used to be the primary reason tigers were threatened, the more modern problem is habitat loss. The Amur (Siberian tiger), for example, is under threat of habitat loss as logging takes place in the Russian Far East. As humans push the borders of the wild, tigers are inevitably encountered. As land and hunting zones decrease for the tigers, they begin to hunt human livestock out of necessity. This furthers tensions and often results in the death of the tiger, although the humans are newcomers to the tiger’s habitat.
What species is the closest to extinction?
There are nine subspecies of tigers, but not all of them are equally distributed in numbers. Today there are about 5,000 tigers left in the world outside captivity.
Bengal (Indian) and tigers are the most common (common being a relatively loose term here), with 3,500 individuals estimated in the wild.
Indochinese tigers tigers live in Thailand, Myanmar, and Vietnam. They have faced steadily declining populations. Most estimates put their population at between 200 and 350 individuals. However, their remote habitat makes precise estimates difficult.
The South China tiger is functionally extinct in the wild, with all of the known living individuals being located in Chinese zoos. These tigers were declared pests in the past century, resulting in wholesale execution of them by hunters and poachers. There could be small populations remaining, but if they are present in the wild, they are unknown.
Siberian tigers are the largest tiger species and live in northeast Russia and China, into North Korea. There are about 450 specimens left in the wild. They are considered endangered, but their population is stable as of right now after action taken by the Chinese and Russian governments.
The Sumatran (and Malayan) tigers live on islands in Indonesia and Malaysia. Although they are governmentally protected, they are still being poached and are considered critically endangered. There are likely 400 specimens left in the wild.
What tigers subspecies have already gone extinct?
Sadly, not all tiger species have made it into the 21st century. There are three subspecies of tigers that are now extinct.
The Bali tiger lived in modern-day Bali, colonizing the islands during the last ice age around 12,000 years ago. The last time they were recorded on the island was in 1930, but a small population likely remained until the 40s. They were hunted to extinction and left with nowhere to live as a result of habitat loss.
The Javan tiger was native to the Indonesian island of Java until it died off in the 1970s. They were smaller than other subspecies but were reportedly incredibly strong, able to break a water buffalo leg with a swipe of its paw. The Javan tiger had bounties on their heads and suffered from hunting and massive habitation loss. In some places, they intentionally released poisoned prey to kill tigers faster.
The Caspian tiger was native to Turkey, Iran, the Caucasus, and around Central Asia and the Middle East. These widespread tigers were sized between Bengal tigers and Siberian tigers and were often used for sport in gladiatorial games. They were hunted widely but suffered the most from habitat devastation as cotton farming destroyed their essential reed-bed habitats along waterways. They likely went extinct in the 1970s, with their populations rapidly decreasing in their historic regions over the course of a few decades.
How many tigers are left in the world?
Currently, there are 8,000 captive tigers in the world and around 5,000 wild tigers. Of the captive populations, 5,000 of those individuals live in the United States, where exotic pet laws don’t prohibit them from being privately owned. Other captive specimens are located in zoos and enclosures all over the world.
Wild tigers are only found in 6% of their historic range and have decreased in population drastically over the past 100 years. In the early 1900s, there were approximately 100,000 tigers in the wild, a fraction of today. Overall, tiger populations have dropped by 95% globally in only 100 years.
Is the future looking better or worse for tigers?
Thankfully, there is hope for tigers. Although they have experienced a 95% drop in their population, there seems to be some stability right now. The biggest success story for tigers is in India with the Bengal tiger. After a massive systemic change, the Indian government funded researchers and programs known collectively as “Project Tiger.”
Project Tiger included mapping, research, and documentation of tigers, their habitats, and what we could best do to save them. Since the program’s inception, Bengal tigers have seen an increase in their numbers by twofold, all with reduced interactions reported between tigers and humans.
Programs like the Tiger Project and the National Tiger Conservation Authority do great work with ensuring modernity and the beautiful places and creatures of the world can coexist. In fact, they are both healthier when that happens!
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