Tigers are among the most charismatic creatures that roam our Earth. They are popular school and sports mascots. They are the namesake for fish, types of stones, birds and various insects. No matter how you cut it, tigers are a species of legendary recognition around the world. How is this culturally and naturally important creature doing in the 21st century? Are tigers endangered?
In short, yes, tigers are endangered. But to answer this more completely, let’s first define the term ‘endangered.’
The term ‘Endangered Species’ is a relatively recent term. It was first used in the late 1950’s or early 1960’s. The most simple definition of the term is ‘a species at risk of extinction.’ Various groups can designate a plant or animal as an endangered species. The United States federal government is perhaps the most well-known entity. They use the Endangered Species Act to designate protections. State governments also have the ability to pronounce an endangered species within their state.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) is the most prominent authority for listing species internationally. The IUCN Red List is the definitive guide to the conservation status of species globally.
The conservation status of a species is broken into categories. The most common species are of ‘Least Concern.’ These are species like crows and dandelions. ‘Threatened’ species are at risk of extinction, ‘Endangered Species’ are at a high risk of extinction, and ‘Critically Endangered’ species are on the brink of extinction. The IUCN has reviewed nearly 100,000 species, and determined that about 27,000 of these are ‘Threatened’, ‘Endangered’, or ‘Critically Endangered.’
There are a few factors that make some species more likely to go extinct than others. We will explore these factors, and then examine how they relate to tigers.
Species that take a longer time to reproduce and care for their young are more likely to be endangered. Animals like house mice are a classic (and sometimes pesky) example of creatures that have resilient populations.
Mice can increase their populations rapidly, due to:
Tigers, on the other hand, exhibit:
Compared to mice, tigers are very slow to reproduce. Tigers are inherently more vulnerable to extinction than most animals because of this long reproductive cycle. They simply can’t establish populations quickly, even when given the opportunity.
A Home Range is the amount of space a species needs to live its life. Animals that need less space to perform their daily tasks are less likely to go extinct. When an animal needs lots of space, it is more likely that humans will invade its habitat.
A barnacle is an example of an animal that has a tiny home range. These animals can perform all of their functions from one point on a rock. Tigers, on the other hand, have enormous home ranges of 27-115 square miles. For perspective, the island of Manhattan is 22 square miles. This huge home range means that tigers need large tracts of undisturbed land to succeed. Wild lands are turning into farms and urban areas across the globe, especially in Asia. This doesn’t bode well for our tiger friends.
Species that require very specific habitats are much more likely to go extinct than species that can do well in a variety of habitats. The Mission Blue Butterfly is an endangered butterfly around San Francisco. It lives only in the San Francisco Bay Area at elevations around 700 feet on two species of plants. Since the butterfly can’t live anywhere else, it is at a high risk of extinction due to development in its small habitat. When people develop this land, the butterfly has nowhere else to go.
Fortunately, tigers can live in a broad variety of landscapes. Their historical range was from the frozen tundra of Russia to the steaming island jungles of Southeast Asia, and out to the deserts of the Middle East. Tigers can also adapt to eating different kinds of prey, making them resilient in regards to habitat requirements.
Tigers have long reproductive cycles and require large home ranges. These two traits make them more vulnerable than most creatures. Their ability to live in many kinds of habitats is likely the only reason they are not currently extinct.
The tiger’s habitat has been severely impacted by human deforestation and development in Asia. This loss of habitat makes it difficult for tigers to find home ranges large enough to sustain a population. Poaching tigers for their fur and organs is another huge problem for the species. Due to their long reproductive cycle, it takes years to replace any hunted tiger.
The global population of wild tigers is about 4000 individuals. This is 7% of the historical population. This small population, combined with large human pressures caused the IUCN to declare the tiger ‘Endangered’ in 1986. So yes, the tiger is ‘Endangered.’
There are nine distinct subspecies of tigers. A subspecies is a geographically distinct group that does not breed with other subspecies. Three of the nine tiger subspecies have goon extinct. The Balinese and Javan tigers were subspecies that both lived on relatively small islands. They were more likely to go extinct that other subspecies because their habitat areas were the smallest to begin with. This feature made them more vulnerable to extinction than their mainland counterparts.
The Caspian tiger is the third extinct subspecies. This central-Asian subspecies went extinct because the Russian army selectively hunted it for decades in the early 20th century. Furthermore, this subspecies hunted in wetlands. These wetlands were converted to crops, leaving few places for the tiger to call home.
Here is the conservation status of the six remaining subspecies:
South China Tiger – Functionally Extinct. No individual has been seen since 2007
A glimmer of hope exists in for the tiger. There have been modest gains in the tiger population over the last few years. The global population is at 4,000, which is about 1,000 more than in 2006. This increase is due to massive, international conservation efforts. The goal of these efforts is to increase the tiger population to 6,000 by 2022 (the next Year of the Tiger in China).
While it seems that the conservation community may fall short of that goal, the tiger population could be on the rise. Let’s hope that we can look back in 50 years and call tiger conservation a success.