Tiger Subspecies: Six Surviving
Tiger subspecies are all endangered. Tigers, being the largest members of the Felidae family, are one of the most captivating endangered species globally. Their numbers have significantly dropped by around 95% over the past century, and they now inhabit 40% less of the territory than they did a decade ago, as stated by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).
Panthera tigris is the species name for tigers, comprising nine subspecies in total, with three of them being extinct. Conservation efforts are crucial to protect the remaining six subspecies, which are as follows:
- Bengal Tiger: Found primarily in India and neighboring countries.
- Indochinese Tiger: Native to the Indochinese region.
- Malayan Tiger: Inhabits the Malay Peninsula.
- Siberian Tiger: Roams across northeastern Russia and northern China.
- South China Tiger: The most critically endangered, found in southern China.
- Sumatran Tiger: Exclusive to the island of Sumatra in Indonesia.
Each of these subspecies is distinguished by their unique characteristics and geographic range.
Amur (or Siberian) Tiger (Panthera tigris altaica)
The Amur tiger, often referred to as the Siberian, Manchurian, Ussurian, or Northeast China tiger, is the largest subspecies of tiger. Males can grow up to 10.5 feet (3.3 m) in length and weigh as much as 660 pounds (300 kilograms), while females are slightly smaller, reaching about 8.5 feet (2.6 m) and weighing between 200 and 370 pounds (100 to 167 kilograms).
This species’ fur color is paler than that of other tigers, with brown rather than black stripes. They also have white chests, bellies, and a distinctive white ruff of fur around their necks.
There are two main wild Amur tiger populations in the Russian Far East. The largest group, with around 450 individuals, spans approximately 60,000 square miles (156,000 sq km) in the Primosky and Khabarovski Krais regions. A smaller population of roughly 35 tigers can be found along the Russia-China border, extending into northeast China.
To protect the endangered Amur tiger, as listed on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species, officials from China’s Jilin province and Russia’s Primorsky province have set up a protected area crossing their countries’ common border.
Global efforts to support this vulnerable species include breeding programs in zoos to boost Amur tiger populations and maintain healthy genetic diversity. Notable examples include Amur tiger triplets recently born at the Pittsburgh Zoo and another set of cubs at the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Bronx Zoo.
Indian (or Bengal) Tiger (Panthera tigris tigris)
The Bengal tiger, representing a majority of the world’s tiger population, can be found across India, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Bhutan. Approximately 2,500 to 3,750 of these tigers reside in India, as reported by the Save the Tigers Fund.
A genetic variation present in some Bengal tigers leads to a unique white or cream color instead of the typical orange. However, these “white” tigers are a rare sight in the wild. Bengal tigers inhabit various ecosystems like dry and wet deciduous forests, grasslands, temperate forests, and mangrove forests.
Despite having a larger population compared to other tiger subspecies, the Bengal tiger is still classified as Endangered on the IUCN Red List. Efforts must continue to protect and conserve this majestic species.
South China Tiger (Panthera tigris amoyensis)
The South China tiger, also known as Panthera tigris amoyensis, is a critically endangered species native to central and eastern China. It is believed to be functionally extinct in the wild, with an unknown number of individuals remaining. Just four decades ago, over 4,000 tigers roamed China, but governmental policies declared them pests, leading to extensive hunting.
At present, there are 47 South China tigers living in 18 zoos within China, as reported by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Despite the lack of sightings, field surveys conducted in 1987 and 1990 discovered evidence of their existence in the remote mountains of Guangdong, Hunan, and Fujian Provinces. This information was primarily gathered through stories shared by local hunters. The South China tiger continues to face immense challenges in conservation efforts to protect this rare and unique species.
Malayan Tiger (Panthera tigris jacksoni)
The Malayan tiger, recognized as a distinct subspecies in 2004, is similar to the Indochinese tiger but smaller in size. Its habitat encompasses the tropical and subtropical moist broadleaf forests in southern Thailand and Peninsular Malaysia. The subspecies name “jacksoni” pays tribute to Peter Jackson, a previous Chair of the IUCN Cat Specialist Group. The IUCN classifies the Malayan tiger as Endangered on its Red List.
Indo-Chinese Tiger (Panthera tigris corbetti)
The Indo-Chinese tiger, also referred to as Corbett’s tiger in honor of British hunter and naturalist Jim Corbett, can be found in Cambodia, Laos, Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, and formerly in China. Classified as endangered by the IUCN Red List, this subspecies has unique characteristics that separate it from its relatives.
Distinct from the Bengal tiger, the Indo-Chinese tiger is typically smaller and darker, with shorter and narrower stripes. Males have an average length of 9 feet (3 meters) and weigh around 400 pounds (180 kilograms), while females are generally smaller, measuring 8 feet (2.4 meters) in length and weighing approximately 250 pounds (115 kilograms).
Inhabiting remote forests within hilly and mountainous regions, the terrain that these tigers call home has proven to be a challenge for researchers to access, causing a limited understanding of their status in the wild. Nonetheless, it has been estimated that in 1998, there were between 736 and 1,225 Indo-Chinese tigers living in the wild.
A genetic analysis conducted in 2004 concluded that Indo-Chinese tigers were indeed a separate subspecies from the Malayan tigers, providing clarification for their distinct classification.
Sumatran Tiger (Panthera tigris sumatrae)
The Sumatran tiger, a critically endangered species, is native only to the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Although Indonesian laws rigorously protect these tigers with strict penalties such as imprisonment and hefty fines, hunting and trading of their body parts and skins persist, posing significant threats to their survival.
This subspecies possesses the darkest-colored coat among all tigers, characterized by densely-packed black stripes that occasionally double up. Unlike its Siberian counterpart, the Sumatran tiger has stripes along its forelegs. Being the smallest subspecies, males measure an average of 8 feet (2.4 meters) and weigh around 260 pounds (120 kilograms), while females are approximately 7 feet (2 meters) long and weigh about 200 pounds (90 kilograms).
Conservation efforts include the Indonesian Zoological Parks’ Association (PKBSI) developing a plan to protect and maintain their population. Sumatran tigers can be found in zoos across Indonesia, North America, Europe, and Australasia. Notably, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park even houses two female cubs born in October.
Tiger Subspecies- Three Extinct
Bali Tiger (Panthera tigris balica) – EXTINCT
The Bali tiger, an extinct subspecies of tiger, disappeared in the 1940s. Its last confirmed sightings occurred in western Bali during the late 1930s. Factors contributing to its extinction were hunting, deforestation, and the depletion of its prey. Notably, no captive Bali tigers exist today.
Javan Tiger (Panthera tigris sondaica) – EXTINCT
The Javan tiger, a species that once thrived on the Indonesian island of Java, is now extinct. The last confirmed sighting occurred in Meru Betiri National Park in 1976, with the population likely vanishing from most of the island as early as the 1940s.
Caspian Tiger (Panthera tigris virgata) – EXTINCT
The Caspian tiger disappeared in the 1970s. These tigers inhabited sparse forests and riverine corridors in regions including Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Xinjiang, China, typically west and south of the Caspian Sea. The reasons for their extinction encompass hunting of the tigers and their prey, habitat destruction and fragmentation, and increased susceptibility of small population numbers.
Frequently Asked Questions
What are the main differences among tiger subspecies?
The key distinctions among tiger subspecies involve differences in size, color, and habitat preferences. Each subspecies has its unique adaptations, allowing it to thrive in its environment.
Which tiger subspecies are currently extinct?
Three tiger subspecies are considered extinct: the Bali tiger, the Javan tiger, and the Caspian tiger. These subspecies have disappeared due to various factors, including habitat loss and poaching.
How does the size vary among the tiger subspecies?
The size of tigers varies across the nine subspecies. The Siberian tiger is the largest in size, while the Sumatran tiger is the smallest. Other subspecies fall in between these two extremes regarding size, with body length and weight differing accordingly.
Distinct habitats of tiger subspecies
Each tiger subspecies occupies a unique habitat:
- Siberian tiger: Eastern Russia, Northeast China
- Bengal tiger: India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan
- Indochinese tiger: Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam
- Malayan tiger: Malaysian Peninsula
- Sumatran tiger: Sumatra, Indonesia
- South China tiger: Southern China
- Bali tiger (extinct): Bali, Indonesia
- Javan tiger (extinct): Java, Indonesia
- Caspian tiger (extinct): Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Central Asia
Most critical conservation status among tiger subspecies
Some tiger subspecies are in more severe status than others. The South China tiger is critically endangered, with an estimated 20-30 individuals remaining. The Malayan and Sumatran tigers are also considered to face high extinction risk and classified as critically endangered.
Different tiger subspecies adaptations in their environments
Tiger subspecies have developed distinct adaptations to survive and thrive in their respective habitats. These adaptations differ in size, coat color and pattern, and hunting techniques. For instance, the Siberian tiger has a thicker coat to withstand cold climates, while the Bengal tiger’s coat color and pattern help camouflage it in the tall grasses of India. Additionally, each subspecies has specific hunting techniques that align with their habitat’s unique challenges, such as the Sumatran tiger swimming to catch prey in their marshy habitat.