Tigers are the largest species of the cat family. Male tigers are generally about 8 to 10 ft (2.4–3 m) long, including the 3-ft (1.8-m) tail. The Siberian tiger may be 13 ft (4 m) long, including the tail, and weigh 650 lb (290 kg), much larger than any lion. The coat of the tiger is orange-yellow with numerous prominent black stripes; black and albino specimens are sometimes found. The Siberian tiger tends to be the lightest in coloring. The male tiger has no mane comparable to that of a lion, although it may have a ruff around the sides of the head. Tigers and lions are quite similar anatomically and can be interbred.
Tigers are solitary animals and usually hunt at night. A male tiger will have a large range that will overlap with the ranges of several females. Females give birth to two or three cubs, which they raise and train for about two years. Tigers kill a variety of animals, including deer, antelope, wild pigs, and cattle. Tigers try to remain out of sight and hearing of their enemies, especially humans; they prefer fleeing to fighting. They can be killed by wild dogs, elephants, and water buffalos. Man-eating tigers are usually individuals who are too old or sick to capture wild animals. Tigers are good swimmers and enjoy bathing, especially in hot weather, which appears to make them quite uncomfortable. They are poor climbers, taking to trees only in emergencies.
The tiger is an endangered species. Trophy hunting of tigers was a common
sport in the past, especially during the time of the Raj in India, when tens of thousands of Bengal tigers were shot. The greatest threats to the tiger now, however, are loss of natural habitat, loss of prey species such as deer and wild cattle to hunting by humans, and poaching. Tiger bone is used in traditional Chinese medicines to treat a variety of ailments, including rheumatism and impotence, and its sale and use continue despite a ban imposed by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in 1976.
Three tiger subspecies, the Caspian, Javan, and Balinese tigers, are extinct; the South China tiger is very near extinction. According to 1995 population estimates, the Bengal tiger is believed to be the most numerous, with a population of 4,000. It is followed by the Indochinese tiger (1,100), the Sumatran tiger (400), and the Siberian tiger (250). Some population rebounds have been noted since then, however, in eastern Siberia, Nepal, and some parts of India owing to increased conservation efforts, but the Bengal tiger population in India has suffered from serious poaching for the Chinese medicinal and animal skin markets. Its population was estimated to have fallen to nearly one third the 1995 estimate by 2008, but subsequently the numbers recovered to around 3,000. Captive breeding programs for tigers have met with considerable success but are plagued by a lack of space and the problem of maintaining genetic purity between subspecies that are defined more by range than by biological differences.
Tigers are classified in the phylum Chordata, subphylum Vertebrata, class Mammalia, order Carnivora, family Felidae.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
See more Encyclopedia articles on: Vertebrate Zoology