Since 1900, the endangered tiger’s habitat and numbers have been reduced by up to 95 per cent. At the eleventh hour, can the world understand how to protect and stop the extinction of tigers?
The Sumatran Tiger
These tigers are the last of the three Indonesian island subspecies and are only found on the island of Sumatra. It was only in 1998 that the Sumatran tiger was classed as a distinct subspecies, after identifying specific genetic markers. This tiger is critically endangered and it is estimated that there are only around 400-500 of these tigers left. Increasing deforestation and the brutality and frequency of poaching has led to the population becoming closer to being extinct than ever before. Sumatra is a unique island and the only place where tigers, orangutans, rhinos and elephants all live together.
The Sumatran tiger is a keystone species and without it, the biodiversity of Sumatra would be severely damaged. Poaching is respsonsible for around 78% of Sumatran tiger deaths and with 40 animals poached per year, it is predicted that the species will be extinct in the next 10 years. Land is being consistently cleared for agriculture, plantations and settlement, meaning that the habitat for these tigers is ever reducing and becoming fragmented. Tigers are also coming into conflict with humans, as their habitat ever decreases and they look for food in villages.
The Amur or Siberian Tiger
The Amur tiger is the largest big cat in the world. The Amur tiger was once found throughout the Russian Far East, northern China, and the Korean peninsula. Hunting has driven the species to near extinction. In the 1800s, it is estimated that 150 tigers were hunted in Russia and at the end of the 1930s Lev Kaplanov (a Russian naturalist and zoologist) stated there may only be 20-30 individuals lefts. In 1947, a ban was enforced on tiger hunting but it took another 40 years for tiger numbers to recover. It is estimated there are only 450 Amur tigers left in the wild. Their habitat is restricted to the Sikhote-Alin range in Far East Russia.
As logging activity in Russia increases, so does the laying of new road, meaning that more tigers are dying from road collisions. With ‘primary roads’, i.e. those maintained all year around and are used to connect villages and towns, the survival rate for adult tigers is around 55%. The roads also provide access into the habitat of the tigers, making it easy for poachers to kill the tigers. Illegal hunting of ungulates is reducing prey availability for the tigers and as the ungulate population declines, the tigers are often blamed, leading to human-tiger conflict. Logging and controlled forest fires are contributing to the decline of the tiger habitat.
Unfortunately, as with so many of these tigers, poaching is still the biggest threat. Human caused deaths still account for 75-85% of Amur tiger deaths. It is estimated that 20-30 tigers are poached in Russia each year (this is only the known number and the true number may be a lot higher). Tigers are typically poached for their fur and body parts that are used in Chinese medicine. The opening of the border between Russia and China has made it far easier to transport tiger goods into the Asian market.
The Bengal tiger
The Bengal tiger is the most numerous of all the tiger subspecies, even though it is listed as endangered and there are fewer than 2,500. The tigers are found in India mainly, with small populations in Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, China and Myanmar. Without India’s tiger reserves, it is unlikely that this subspecies would be so ‘successful’. However, the threat of poaching is increasing as the market in Asia is growing. Asia itself is growing dramatically. The ever-increasing Indian population is resulting in habitat loss for the Bengal tiger as people illegally live in the protected areas. As the population rapidly grows, so does the need for wood and illegal logging is reducing their habitat. Poaching will always be a major threat and it is estimated that between 1994 and 2009, the Wildlife Protection Society of India documented 893 cases of tigers killed in India, which could be a fraction of the actual poaching and trade in tiger parts during those years.
The Indochinese tiger
The status of the Indochinese tiger is endangered with only around 350 individuals. Indochinese tigers are located across southern China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Cambodia Laos, Thailand and eastern Burma. These areas are remote and so very little is known about these tigers. There is extensive habitats for the Indochinese tiger but there is pressure for agriculture, mining and hydropower development. These tigers are being poached for an increasing demand for wild meat. Prey densities in their habitat are very low due to intensive hunting from the local populations. As with all the other tigers, the Indochinese tiger is poached for traditional medicine. Some of these tigers are being taken to tiger farms in Asia to meet demand. The war in Vietnam has severely impacted on the tigers habitat and it only now that tigers are able to move back to the area.
The South China Tiger
Unfortunately, the South China tiger might be or have been the next tiger to join the extinction list. In the 1950s, it was estimated there were 4,000 individuals but as they were increasingly hunted as ‘pests’, numbers declined to around 30-80 individuals in 1996. The South China tiger has not been sighted for more than 25 years and has been considered ‘functionally extinct’, even though a ban on hunting was put in place in 1979. In the unlikely event that these tigers still exist, their habitat is unsuitable as it is highly fragmented with areas of around 200 square miles; too small to support a tiger population. There seems to be little to help alleviate the situation. China has the largest population in world at 1.3 billion and there is no stopping their growth. There are around 80-100 South China tigers in captivity and there is hope to reintroduce them in the future if a large enough habitat can be secured.
The Malayan Tiger
Found on the Malay Peninsula and in the southern tip of Thailand, the Malayan tiger was only discovered in 2004 when it was differentiated from the Indochinese tiger. There are around 500 of these tigers and they are classed as endangered. Illegal logging poses the main threat to the Malayan tiger. Much of the forests have been changed into farming lands or plantations resulting in more human-tiger conflict and reduction in habitat. The tigers that are killed in the human-tiger conflict are often then sold onto the black market to be used in medicine or as a status symbol. There are many efforts to breed these tigers in zoos to reintroduce them into the wild.
How The World Lost Three Stripes – The Bali Tiger, The Caspian Tiger and The Javan Tiger
The Bali Tiger reached extinction due to hunting. Of course, because they were limited to Bali, there was not an enormous population to begin with. As people populated the island, they hunted the tiger in order to sell their pelts and organs, as well as to protect themselves from these hunters. Culling was encouraged. The tigers were culled into extinction and there is little evidence of existence except for a few skulls and written documentations. The last Bali tiger was seen in 1937.
Russia colonised Turkey during the late-1800’s and they began to hunt the Caspian Tiger excessively. Once found in Russian Turkestan, Afghanistan, Iran, and Turkey. In addition, they hunted the natural prey of these predators, causing many to die from starvation. The reedbed habitat of the tiger was changed into agricultural land and this was made worse by the restricted nature of distribution. It is believed that this species went extinct in the 1990s.
The Panthera tigris sondaica died out in the 1970’s. These tigers were found exclusively on the island of Java. They were protected in 1947, but it was too late to save the Java Tiger from extinction. They were poisoned by locals wanting to protect themselves and hunted for reward or financial gain. During the period of civil unrest after 1965, armed groups retreated to reserves, where they killed the remaining tigers. The tigers also died as a result of their prey being killed to the point of extinction.
Often perceived to be a danger. In reality, we are the danger. The tigers are in crisis. A crisis we created.