At the turn of the century as many as 100,000 tigers may have lived throughout Asia and in parts of Russia. Since then, the population has shrunk by an estimated 95 percent, with probably fewer than 6,000 tigers left in the wild today.
Tigers are generally believed to have evolved in southern China more than a million years ago and then to have prowled westward toward the Caspian Sea, north to the snow-filled evergreen and oak forests of Siberia , and south, across Indochina and Indonesia, all the way to Bali.
Into the 1940's, eight supposed subspecies existed in the wild. Since then, the tigers of Bali, the Caspian region, and Java have vanished, and the South China tiger, hunted as vermin as recently as the regime of Mao Zedong, seems poised to follow them into extinction. Fewer than 30 individuals may now survive outside of zoos, scattered among 4 disconnected patches of mountain forest, probably too few and far between to maintain a viable population ever again. Just 4 other subspecies remain, the Bengal, the Indochinese, the Sumatran, and the Siberian tiger. Well over half the remaining tigers in the wild are believed to live in India, Nepal, and Bangladesh.
Adult females form the core of tiger society, defending exclusive territories from which other breeding females are excluded, but in which subadult offspring are tolerated. These tigresses mate with a territorial male who usually has a larger range overlapping those of 3 females. If prey animals are scarce, the home range of a male tiger may cover 600 square miles. When the female has cubs, she will defend the area around the den in a territorial manner, but only until the young begin to accompany her on the hunt. Young tigers leave their mothers at about 2 years of age, and try to establish their own territories. But death rates are high, fewer than half of cubs grow to adulthood. From among these survivors, only about half make is through fierce competition to reach breeding age. But because females breed at the early age of 4 years, and produce 3 to 4 offspring every third year, tiger populations could continue to grow if they were protected from humans. Because its home range is so large, the tiger couldn't possibly prevent other tigers from entering its territory, and it doesn't try to do so. Thus the home ranges of the males may overlap without conflict.
Tigers do not "roam" the forest as writers like to have them do; instead they carefully work delineated territories, on the lookout for their next meal and on the alert for any other predator that threatens access to it. They hunt primarily between dusk and dawn, carefully searching in broad, zigzag sweeps. They are solitary stalkers, ambushing prey from a hiding place. The tremendous initial impact of the tiger brings it down, and a swift grip on the throat strangles it.
Loss of prey base is the single most important reason tigers are scarce over much of Asia. Though they also face battles for habitat, with the forest being raided for firewood, and ravaged by logging companies for timber. They also must compete with local hunters for prey. And they are in constant peril from poachers who supply tiger parts to the traditional medicine trade. Tigers need meat, massive amounts of it, just to stay alive. An adult Bengal tigress on her own eats an average of 13 lbs. every day, 4,700 lbs. every year: a tigress with 2 cubs can demand more than 6,800 lbs. a year. That's somewhere between 40 to 70 kills annually. It takes enormous enery to do all that. It is therefore far more efficient for tigers to hunt big animals. But in areas where large animals have been hunted almost to extinction, tigers now struggle to survive on small prey. The density of suitable prey is the most reliable indicator of how a tiger population is likely to fare. And history bears this out. Tiger hunting and loss of habitat were once blamed for the loss of the Bali, Caspian, and Javan tigers - both surely played a part in their decline. But the latest research suggest that it was the loss of their prey that finally made their lives literally insupportable. With enough to eat, enough space, and enough protection, tigers will take care of themselves.
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