What are tigers?

Tigers are big cats. They are one of the most threatened species of animal on Earth.

There used to be nine subspecies, or breeds, of tiger, but three have become extinct in the last century: Bali, Caspian and Javan tigers are extinct. The South Chinese tiger is almost extinct, perhaps already is.

An animal classified as extinct has not been seen in the wild for more than 50 years. It is about 10 or so years since a South Chinese tiger has been sighted in the wild.

Today there are six different subspecies of tiger:

Amur, or Siberian tiger

Found in eastern Russia, some in northeastern China, northern North Korea

Lives in thick forests where it snows heavily in winter

Paler colouring, with brown rather than black stripes. White ruff of fur around neck. This is the largest cat in the world.

Up to 3.3m long, nose to tail, weighs about 300 kg

Bengal tiger

Found in India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Myanmar (Burma)

Various habitats including cold Himalayan forests; hot swamps and wet forests in north India; dry forests in Rajasthan.

Reddish orange fur with narrow black, grey or brown stripes. Underside is creamy white.

Up to 2.9m nose to tail, weighs about 140 kg

Indochinese tiger

Found mainly in Thailand, but also Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, southern China, Vietnam, parts of Malaysia

Lives in forests in hilly to mountainous areas

Reddish orange to dark yellow fur with black or dark grey stripes

Up to 2.7 m nose to tail, weighs about 115 kg.

 

Malay, or Malayan, tiger

Found only in the Malaysian part of the Malay Peninsula

Limited to hilly forest areas because the lowland forests have been cleared for rubber and palm plantations

Looks similar to Indochinese tiger - it was only in 2004 that it was classified as a separate subspecies.  

Up to 2.7m nose to tail, weighs about 120 kg

 

 

 

South China, or Amoy, tiger

tiger_sth china.jpg

Found in central to eastern China

Lives in moist forest areas

Short broad stripes widely spaced

Up to 2.5 m nose to tail, weighs about 150 kg

Sumatran tiger

 

 

Found on the island of Sumatra

Lives in lowland to mountain forests

The smallest and darkest of the tigers, suitable for the thick forests in which it lives

Up to 2.4 m nose to tail, weighs about 90 kg

Siberian or Amur tiger, the largest tiger. ©Getty Images

Siberian or Amur tiger, the largest tiger. ©Getty Images

 

 

 

Habitats

The different tiger subspecies live in a variety of habitats. Some live in forests in southern Asia,  some in the woodlands of Siberia. Others are found in mangrove swamps and in tall grass jungles. Some are found in the mountains where it is snowy.

Appearance and Behaviours

Most tigers are orange-brown or dark yellow with dark brown, grey or black stripes. There are patches of white fur on their faces and ears. There is a white mark on the back of each ear so that from behind it looks like the tiger is watching, particularly in a shadowy forest habitat. This is a defence marking, especially useful for a tiger with cubs to protect. Tigers have white fur on their stomachs. A tiger's stripes helps it to get close to prey when it is hunting. The stripes camouflage the tiger, helping it to blend into the grasses and edges of forests where it lives. Each tiger's pattern is different, like human fingerprints. A tiger's tail, which helps it keep its balance when running fast, is about a metre long.

The Sumatran tiger is the smallest of the tigers. ©Getty Images

The Sumatran tiger is the smallest of the tigers. ©Getty Images

The largest tiger is the male Amur or Siberian tiger which can grow to be 3.3 metres long and weigh up to 300 kilograms. The smallest is the female Sumatran tiger which grows to be about 230 centimetres long and weighs up to 110 kilograms.

Most tigers live and hunt alone and mark their territory by spraying the ground and plants with urine (pee) and by leaving scratch marks on trees. They are excellent swimmers, and can swim across wide rivers. They keep cool by spending time in water,  the only cats to deliberately do so.

Malayan tiger

Malayan tiger

Diet

Tigers are carnivores, or meat eaters. They hunt mainly between sunset and dawn.  They stalk their prey, get as close as possible and then race at the animal from behind, pouncing on it and biting the neck or throat.  When the prey is dead, the tiger drags it to a safe place and eats it. If the prey is a large animal the tiger can feed on it for a few days. Not every hunt is successful, but carnivores don't need to eat every day.

Tigers hunt and eat many different kinds of animal such as deer, wild pigs, birds, monkeys, leopards, bears and wild cattle. Tigers eat up to 18 kilograms of meat at one time.

Sumatran tiger cub. Tiger cubs have blue eyes for their first few weeks of life. ©Getty Images

Sumatran tiger cub. Tiger cubs have blue eyes for their first few weeks of life. ©Getty Images

Life Cycle

Tigers live alone, but at breeding time pairs meet up to mate, and after a few days they go their separate ways again.  About 103 days after mating with a male tiger, the female gives birth to a litter of 2 or 3 cubs, but sometimes up to 7.

She looks after the cubs alone, feeding them milk for about 8 weeks. Later she teaches them to hunt. The cubs stay with their mother for up to three years. 

Bengal tiger cub interrupts play to have a nap. ©Getty Images

Bengal tiger cub interrupts play to have a nap. ©Getty Images

White tiger ©Getty Images

White tiger ©Getty Images

Did you know?  

A white tiger is not a subspecies of tiger. The original was captured in India, and was a true 'accident', or mutation, but was then bred specifically to produce white cubs. White tigers today are generally part Siberian and part Bengal. They are bred in captivity by in-breeding animals that are closely related.

White tigers would not survive in the wild because they are not camouflaged like gold and black tigers are. In attempting to breed white tigers, there are many birth defects and cub deaths.

Conservation Status and threats

Tigers are killed for these body parts.

Tigers are killed for these body parts.

Extinction is a very real possibility for tigers.  

The South China tiger may already be extinct. Populations of other subspecies are very low.

Tigers are illegally killed for body parts, fur and meat. One major threat is that in some countries medicines made of tiger body parts are considered to be almost magical because of the strength and ferocity of tigers. Modern pharmacy can make all these medicines chemically without making a species endangered.

Although there is an international ban on killing tigers, illegal medicines made from tiger body parts sell for large sums of money, so poachers continue to kill tigers. Tigers are also killed for their skins to be made into coats or floor rugs.

Loss of habitat is a huge threat, and there is less and less space in the wild for tigers to live.  What is left of wild habitat is often small patches, like islands, which makes it hard for tigers to move about and meet each other for breeding. When a habitat is lost, all the species that are part of it go too. Not only do tigers lose a place to live, they also lose their prey.

The IUCN classification of tiger subspecies:

  • Amur or Siberian tiger: Endangered. There are only about 350 left in the wild.
  • Bengal tiger: Endangered.
  • Indochinese tiger: Endangered. It is estimated that there are about 250 left in the wild.
  • Malayan tiger: Endangered. There are about 500 left in the wild.
  • South China tiger: Critically Endangered. There are about 50 in Chinese zoos, but no sightings  for 10-15 years.
  • Sumatran tiger: Critically Endangered. It is thought that there are between 400 - 500 left in the wild.

Learn more about tigers, threats and conservation: