The tiger (panthera tigeris), largest of all cats, is one of the biggest and most fearsome predators in the world. A typical male Siberian tiger may weigh 500 pounds and measure more than three yards from nose to tip of the tail. They can travel large distances and bound up to 30 feet in one leap.
Powerfully built with fierce retractile claws (they can be pulled into the paw, like a house cat's), the tiger's distinctive gold coloring with black stripes allows it to melt unseen into its environment. The coloring actually ranges from reddish yellow to reddish brown, and both white and "black" tigers have been known to occur in the wild. Most white tigers seen today have been bred in captivity for this characteristic; "black" tigers are examples of a strange color pattern in which the stripes merge into a few, very broad, strips.
Tigers are at the top of the food chain: they eat just about anything, but nothing eats the tiger. Hunting primarily by sight and sound, they have been known to eat crocodiles, fish, birds, reptiles, and even other predators like leopards and bears. However, the preferred food, without which tiger populations cannot remain healthy, are ungulates -- hoofed animals such as deer and wild pigs.
Prey are killed by a bite to the neck or by a strangulating throat hold. If the tiger's prey is too big to eat at once, it will be covered with dirt, leaves and grasses until the next meal. The biggest ungulates, such as gaur (a kind of wild cattle) and water buffalo, provide so much food that the tiger won't hunt again for a week. More than 80 pounds of meat may be eaten at one sitting. Hunting can be very difficult, however, and tigers are only successful in one or two attacks out of every twenty.
Tigers are usually solitary and come together only to mate (although small groups of probably related adults will associate on occasion). Mating can occur at any time, but usually happens between November and April. Gestation lasts about three and a half months. Two or three cubs are normally born, and sometimes more, inside a den made from thick vegetation, a cave, or a rocky crevice. They nurse for three to six months, although they may begin eating meat as early as two month old and can hunt by about one year of age. Cubs will stay with their mother for about two years. Life is dangerous for a tiger cub; only about one-half survive to their third year. The relatively short period between litters (about two to two and a half years), combined with the relatively large litter sizes, allows tiger populations to rebound surprisingly quickly for such large carnivores, given their basic food and habitat requirements.
Male tigers have a large territory, the size of which varies depending on how much vegetation, water, and prey are available. In Russia, territories may be as large as 385 square miles, while a male tiger in the Indian subcontinent may occupy 40 square miles or less. Females have smaller, mutually exclusive ranges contained within a male's range. All tigers mark their territories with urine, feces, and scratching on tree trunks.
Tigers are believed to have evolved over 1 million years ago in what is now South China. From there the tiger eventually spread north to the Amur region of far eastern Russia, south to the islands of Indonesia, and southwest to Indochina and the Indian subcontinent, eastern Turkey, and the Caspian Sea. Wherever tigers lived, they commanded deep respect and awe from their human neighbors.
This century has already seen major losses of wild tigers. By the 1950s, tigers living around the Caspian Sea were extinct. Populations of tigers that once inhabited the islands of Bali and Java are now extinct. The last Bali tiger was killed in 1937; the last Javan tiger sighting occurred in 1972. India today has the largest number of tigers, with between 3,030 and 4,735. The South China tiger, with at best 20 to 30 individuals, is nearly extinct in the wild.
It is estimated that only 5,100 to 7,500 individual tigers now remain in the entire world. These remaining tigers are threatened by many factors, including growing human populations, loss of habitat, illegal hunting of the tiger and the species they hunt, and expanded trade in tiger parts for traditional medicines.