Sleek, solitary, strong, and stealthy; it is no wonder that the biggest of all the big cats is indigenous to the biggest continent on planet earth. Much more impressive in length and weight than lions, leopards, and jaguars, tigers have earned the most fearsome reputation. In several cultures, especially in Asia, tigers are a symbol of strength, dignity, bravery, and power. This is why it is the national animal of at least six countries, including India, North Korea, Bangladesh, Malaysia, South Korea, and Nepal.
There were at least nine subspecies of tigers, but today, only six of these species are still in existence. The six living species are identifiable by their difference in size, geographic location, and especially coloration. They are the Siberian tiger, Bengal tiger, Malayan tiger, Indochinese tiger, South China tiger, and the Sumatran tiger.
Size and weight of a tiger
Generally, male tigers are much larger than female tigers. A tiger could grow to body lengths measuring up to 13 feet (or 4 meters) including the tail and stand at a shoulder height of between 2.7 to 4 feet (that’s 0.8 to 1.2 meters). They also weigh between 220 to 660 pounds (or 100 to 300 kilograms). Their tail alone could measure up to 3 feet (about 1 meter) in length and proves highly functional in navigating sharp and sudden turns, especially during a high-speed chase, which is often between 50 to 65 km/h (approximately 30 to 40 mph).
Several centuries ago, tigers were widely distributed across the whole of Asia. But today, they are mainly found in South and East Asia in regions/countries such as India, China, Bangladesh, Nepal, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Siberia – the Russian region that stretches into Asia. It is in these regions that the six subspecies of tigers can be found. They live in habitats of woodlands, tropical rainforests, savannahs, rocky countries, evergreen forests, and mangrove swamps.
In as much as there is dense foliage, a water source, and an abundance of prey, tigers would thrive there. In these habitats, they have been in existence for at least 2 million years according to fossil evidence. The oldest unearthed fossil is the complete skull of Panthera zdanskyi, which is colloquially referred to as the Longdan tiger. It was discovered in the Chinese province of Gansu.
Tigers in captivity have a much longer life expectancy than those in the wild. This is because tigers in captivity have access to sufficient food, water source, and good medical care. Tigers in the wild have a life expectancy of 10 to 15 years, while tigers in captivity could live up to 26 years. Human activities such as logging have continued to deplete the tiger’s natural habitat. This means reduced prey and reduced space to roam and exercise. Generally, female tigers require 25 to 1,600 square kilometers (that’s about 10 to 620 square miles), while males have much larger home range which cuts across and connects with several female territories.
Diet and hunting style
Being carnivores like all the other big cats, tigers eat a wide variety of animals, including, fish, wild boar, water buffalo, reptiles, gaur, monkeys, birds, different species of deer, etc. Sometimes it would hunt other powerful predators like leopards and crocodiles and sometimes cattle and sheep if it happens to stray close to a farmer’s ranch. If assessed on the basis of their tendency of solitary hunting, tigers are successful hunters. They optimally utilize the advantage of their large size and lightning speed. But their greatest hunting tool is their uncanny stealth.
Tigers often sneak up to their prey and lay in ambush while their striped fur is perfectly camouflaged. They then identify the target prey and then wait for just the right moment to pounce on such prey. Through the aid of their muscular hind legs, which are longer than the forelegs, they can jump an amazing distance of 33 feet (about 10 meters) in one leap and as high as 16 feet (5 meters). They then pull down the prey using retractable 10 centimeters (or 4 inches) long claws while their 6.4 to 7.6 centimeters (2.5 to 3.0 inches) long teeth finish off the prey.
They have just 30 teeth (much fewer than most carnivores) but with abundant pressure-sensing nerves perfect for detecting where the exact location is needed to cause instant death to the prey. This could be the severance of the carotid blood vessel in the neck or the breaking of the spinal cord at the back of the neck for smaller animals.
Humans as a natural predator
With such a combination of fearsome characteristics, the tiger occupies the top of the food chain and hence, has no natural predator. Well, except one – humans! Humans have caused a sharp decline in the total population of tigers through incessant poaching, logging, road construction, and land development. There is such high demand and boom in illegal sales of tiger parts. China is particularly the biggest of these illegal markets as every inch of the tiger’s body and fur costs a premium.
Several of the tiger’s body parts are often incorporated into traditional Chinese medicine for different purposes. For example, a medicine prepared through the use of the animal’s bones is said to endow the user with the tiger’s strength, the tiger’s striped skin is used in the treatment of mental illnesses, the whiskers are believed to be functional in curing toothache while the skin is good leather and an aesthetic piece. Every inch of the tiger’s body is highly coveted. So it’s no surprise that there are less than 4,000 tigers left in the wild, and India is home to over 70% of them.
This is why tigers are classified as endangered in the red list of threatened species published by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). In fact, there were at least nine known subspecies of tigers, but by the early part of the 20th century, three had already become functionally extinct.
Tiger attacks and potential danger
The 20th century saw the hunting of tigers not only as a thing of pride but was also promoted as there were prevalent cases of ‘man-eating’ tigers. While tigers would ordinarily not hunt or attack humans, there have been numerous verified cases of tigers hunting and eating humans. This category of tigers is often referred to as ‘man-eaters.’ In fact, tigers attack more humans than any other of the big cats. An investigative BBC news article published in 2014 examined how “17 people in four states” (in India) had died due to attacks by tigers in just five weeks.
There is also a BBC Future article published in November 2019, which documents how a man (who was also a father and husband) was attacked and “half-eaten” by a tiger in Bandipur Tiger Reserve, a national park in South-Western India. The tiger was still sitting next to the remains when the search party got there. There are historically popular man-eating tigers such as the notorious “Champawat Tiger”, a tiger who ate over 400 people and eventually got terminated by Jim Corbett. Another example is the “Tiger of Segur”, who was also an infamous man-eater and who got terminated by Kenneth Anderson.
There are of course many more tigers that were known for their preference for human flesh. Humans are generally not the preferred food source for tigers. Man-eating tigers are usually tigers that are either too old to hunt their normal prey, starving to death, injured, or injured and therefore choose humans as prey out of desperation. It’s all about survival.
Tigers are dignified, solitary apex predators that once roamed the whole of Asia. Today, however, they have lost over 90% of their original home range and population and are only holding on to the little remaining habitats in hope of surviving. With three subspecies already extinct and with the remaining six currently endangered, humans have to take positive conservative actions towards protecting these majestic predators if we want to continue seeing them around.