Tiger Status in the Wild and Captivity

tiger hunting 1830
As mentioned in the introduction, three subspecies are extinct - Bali, Javan, Caspian. This topic is all about conflict with humans and persecution by humans. In fact all the treats to the wildcats whatever the size or location are related to conflict and persecution with and by humans indirectly or indirectly and in one form or another. For decades the poachers have been better organised and motivated than the gamekeepers (the conservationists). And that state of affairs reflects the world view on the tiger at 2009. And as the tiger becomes scarcer its value rises, which makes it more desirable to kill it. Is there a tipping point?

The tiger has an image as a virile and courageous hunter based on human standards. Cats also are very efficient procreators and are very althetic. They are excellent fighters. Combine all these and people admire the tiger and want a piece of it to try and take from it some of these skills and powers. And when I say take a piece of it I say eat it (tiger bone is very valuable -see for table below7 12). And therein lies its demise. The tiger is the world's top predator except for the human. And the human is frankly in a different league. This is leading to its extirpation in the wild. Poaching in India's tiger reserves is high and for these prices you can understand why.

Tiger Product Price $ USD per Kg Place Date
Bone 130 Nepal 2002
Bone 130-175 Vietnam 2002
Bone up to 300 Russia 2002
Bone 140-370 South Korea, Taiwan 2009
Penis Soup 320 Taiwan 2009
Humerus bone up to 3190 Seoul 2009
Eyes (2) 170 Taiwan 2009

And on the islands of Bali, Java and Sumatra it would seem fair comment to say that the tiger simply gets or got (for Bali and Java where it is extinct) in the way of human activity. It is still a nuisance in Sumatra and it is given little respect. There is little doubt that the people of these islands (taken as a whole) do not want the tiger in their backyard. It is seen as a danger. Why have something dangerous wandering around the island, a relatively small space?

The status per the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™ (Red List) as at 2009 for these subspecies of tiger is as follows:

Tiger subspecies Status - 2009
Siberian, Bengal, Malayan, Indochinese,
Sumatran, South China
Caspian, Javan, Bali,

It is expected that if the current decline in tiger populations continues it will become ecologically extinct in 20 years (no longer able to be the top predator)13.

Siberian tiger

I have already mentioned that three of the eight (possibly 9) subspecies are extinct. The South China tiger is almost certainly extinct in the wild. The Siberian tiger population is precarious especially in terms of breeding (the effective breeding population is the equivalent of 35 individuals it is thought6). Its habitat in Russia (90% are in Russia1) is cut into two by industrialization and human activity (Siberian tiger habitat). This is habitat fragmentation and it undermines genetic diversity and therefore survivability. On the right is a chart7 8 on the Siberian tiger populations in Russia (as at 2007 there were 331-393 adult-subadult Amur tigers1) . This subspecies also occurs (or occured) in northeast China (and Korea?) but its primary or sole home is now Russia as none were recorded in 19877 in China. In 1998 a survey indicated that there were 4-6 tigers7 in China. The estimated number at 2007 (on a China government survey) was 18-221. What is the minimum viable population size? How does this impact inbreeding (new window)? And also please see: Inbreeding of Wildcats. Despite an increase in population over a long period it is still inordinately low. In addition to habitat loss the Siberian tiger has suffered from prey base loss, poaching and human/tiger conflict (see below for more on that).

Bengal tiger

In the early years the attitude towards the tiger was that it was a creature to be killed for sport or as a nuisance (see tiger hunt extract from 1815 below right). We have come to realise that the tiger is an asset to the world. The Bengal tiger lives largely on reserves in India and Bangladesh and is gradually losing the battle for survival in the wild, with a precarious population of about 1,400 - see Tiger Population in India. The threats to survival are what I would call the "usual suspects" all generated by human activity. Perhaps top of the list is poaching for body parts (penis is worth $6,00010) to supply Chinese pharmacies. This is compounded by inadequate policing of the reserves (unfair?). Are the reserves too small to sustain viable populations of tiger? Historically habitat loss and fragmentation has also been a major factor in population decline. This is stabilising as the tigers now live in reserves that should remain the same size (but it is said that 60+% of Bengal tigers live outside reserves7). Bengal tigers are still poisoned and I say corruption and mismanagement plays a role in the demise of the supposedly protected Bengal tiger. Forcing tiger and human together results in injury and loss to both parties and then some people start calling the tiger a man eater. People can kill a tiger in self defence but is the law sound (The Wildlife Protection Act 1972)? The Sundarbans in Bangladesh is an area where a high level of tiger attacks take place.

Date Population in India of Bengal tiger
1900 20,000 - 40,000 in Bengal tigers
1960 4,000 (due to habitat destruction and hunting - in those days tigers were routinely hunted). The rarity of the Bengal tiger made hunting more desirable and so the destruction continued.
1969 Est. 2,000 - Project Tiger instigated to save the tiger. Reserves set up.
1991 Estimated 9,000 Bengal tigers, a healthy rise in numbers, but there were doubts about these numbers.
2009 1,400 Bengal tigers extant. This is official. Project Tiger has failed hasn't it? (source for this table: 7)

Sumatran tiger

In the early 1900s the Sumatran tiger was considered a pest as it was so common; the population being large. This is similar to the attitude towards the South China tiger until very recently. The Sumatran tiger was killed for reward in those days. It would seem that it is still treated with disrespect and as a menace, which results in a less than committed conservation. There probably is simply not enough space on the island for people to share it with tigers.

Nowadays it is just killed as a result of neglect and apathy as its forest habitat is destroyed by Asia Pulp and Paper (APP) a large company with a dubious history (habitat loss is at 3.2-5.9% per year1). It is also poached despite being protected by the Indonesian government since 19727. But the government is killing this tiger by allowing the forest to be destroyed for paper. There was only 3% of forest left at 19897. See Sumatran tiger and Deforestation in Indonesia (new window). The reserves are too small for tigers7. The population is estimated at 441-679 (2009) and its habitat covers 51,944 km²1. However, in terms of its breeding ability it behaves as if the population is 176 - 2711 (40% of the total actual population). Is this a viable number in the long term?

Cause of Death 1988-20021 Percentage
Trade in body parts 76
Human/tiger conflict 15

South China tiger

The fact that this tiger is probably extinct almost makes a discussion about threats to survival pointless. If there are a very low number left the population is probably unviable anyway. China likes to turn tiger bone to wine etc. The tiger was considered a nuisance. Nowadays they have captive tigers aplenty in tiger farms ostensibly for conservation but it said that they are tiger body part factories10 and that they undermine conservation by muddying the picture.

Indochinese tiger

This tiger's status in terms of threats to survival is little known because "it status is poorly known" (in comparison to other tigers). There are no population estimates from Laos for example1. But suffice to say that the usual suspects apply such as habitat loss (Thailand's lowland forest has been susbtantially destroyed7) and fragmentation (low populations of tigers enclosed in isolated patches of remaining forest7), poaching for commercial sale of body parts, prey base loss and conflicts between humans and tiger. There were an estimated 250 tigers in Thailand at 1991 with an estimated 150 of those being breeding tigers7.

Date Population of Malayan Tiger
1950s 3,000
1970s 300-600
2000 Around 500 (legislation to protect tiger introduced in 1972)

Malayan tiger

The status of the tiger is Asia is precarious and it is no different on the Malaysian peninsula. In the 1950s they were plentiful and treated as a nuisance. Being no more precious than a rat they were killed promptly. See the table right for some figures7. There appears to be some good news. The Malaysian government (at Nov. 2009) intends to better protect the tiger in their country and double numbers - let's see.

Captive tigers

Another grave situation is that even the captive tigers are endangered. There are 12,000 tigers in captivity and about 4,000 wild tigers. This is because they are inbreed. The Siberian and South China tiger come to mind but it applies to all captive tigers. This creates a cat with a weak constitution. And many of the tigers in captivity are simply not the species of tiger that it is stated to be. It will be a cross breed of some sort. That technically means the various subspecies of tiger in captivity have merged to a large extent. In order to prevent inbreeding it would seem outcrossing is necessary. This indicates that it is not viable to keep the tiger in captivity, doesn't it? As we are heading towards captive tigers as the only tiger remaining this is an unhappy state of affairs. I must also mention the tiger farms in China. There are 4,000+ tigers in tiger farms5. These are ostensibly for conservation but it is believed that they are more about creating a supply of tiger parts for popular tiger products. See tiger farms for more.

Human Conflict with the tiger7

Tigers will kill any animal that is in a vulnerable position7. They kill animals much larger than themselves. And they sometimes kill people. The Bengal tiger of the Sundarbans (in Bangladesh) is where most people are attacked by tigers. My reading indicates that tigers do not treat humans as a first choice as prey, quite the contrary. Their attacks on people are usually the last resort of a starving, old or injured tiger (90% of the time because of injury to the tiger11). The same applies of course to all the large wildcats (see Man Eating Leopard). When you consider the potential for tiger attacks the relative scarcity of them supports what I have said. In fact tigers tend to avoid people. They would appear to recognise that we are dangerous to them. Tigers are reluctant to attack unless provoked (after a warning roar and rush from the tiger when for instance protecting young or a kill).

But the conflict between tiger and human is a crucial part of the threat/conservation process. Research has apparently not come up with a clean and readily understandable answer7.  But in the Sundarbans an estimated 100-150 people are killed by tigers annually and the vast majority are fishermen (the Sundarbans is swampy delta region). As a tiger attack leads to killing the tiger, preventing attacks conserves the tiger. One clever method was to provide masks for people working in the area. The masks were a face made of rubber. It was worn on the back of the head. Tigers usually attack from behind. The mask meant that no one presented their back to the tiger and attacks declined dramatically. This was instigated in 1987. I don't know if it is still in force.

The classic scenario of a man eater is that the tiger becomes injured. This may typically occur when a male is seeking a home range having left the natal area. The young tiger may come into conflict with a male with an established home range. A wound received in a fight can leave the tiger unable to kill wild prey so softer targets are sought such as livestock and people (who are likely to be around if the tiger is killing livestock). Other injuries can come from gunshots (this is an example of human indirectly killing another human if this forces the tiger to become a man-eater).

Another example of people indirectly killing other people through the tiger is by habitat loss. Human activity erodes the habitat of tigers. Tigers like other wild cats need a home range, an area that is theirs. We see this in the domestic cat. Where competition for home ranges is fierce due to scarcity of space a male tiger may become "homeless" and wander. This forces them into "marginal areas" within their overall range and into contact with people and livestock where man-eating can begin. This would apply to healthy as well as injuried tigers.

Interestingly, the humble porcupine may be responsible for creating some man-eating tigers. The quills can cause debilitating injuries.

Status in the Wild - Conservation

Under this heading, in respect of conservation it is appropriate to ball all the tiger subspecies together as on paper they all have the maximum protection that humankind can afford them. In practice the protection does not translate to anything like the kind of protection that is sufficient because populations continue to decline when all the subspecies are combined. Please note: all the wild cats listed on the wild cat species page contain fairly detailed information about conservation and threats. This page is more an overview.

Conservation can be discussed under several headings:
  1. CITES Listings - see CITES in relation to cats.
  2. IUCN Red List listings that guide conservationists - see IUCN Red List for Cats.
  3. Reserves (national parks etc. that are designed to preserve the habitat and prey base) - see for example the parks of India where the Bengal tiger exclusively (?) lives. And please see Indian Tiger Reserves - not all is well. Science predicts that most tigers will not survive in reserves14.
  4. Legislation - see Cats and the Law
  5. What I call clever conservation - lateral thinking projects. I don't usually see any clever conservation in relation to the tiger (sometimes the oppoite seems to be the case) but the people concerned with protecting the snow leopard are doing good things. But one form of conservation for the tiger is unusual and creative -  see the para on Human/Tiger conflict above.
  6. The products market - much more needs to be done to stop the demand for tiger products. We see this rarely tackled. Stop demand and you save the tiger. Another measure would be to substitute tiger products with more effective man made products. Why is this not being done?
CITES stands for Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna. All tigers are listed under CITES Appendix I. This means that they are the most endangered of the species listed by CITES, which prohibits international commerical trade in these species or parts of them. Importation can take place only under specific and exceptional cases and when authorised. Unfortunately, this convention is hard to enforce locally or there has been a reluctance by local authorities to enforce it for various reasons. Better enforcement is needed1. Also a convention is not international law. It cannot be enforced internationally. CITES therefore, although useful, has limited benefits.

The Red List is another worthy concept and organisation but for me they simply record the demise of the tiger. If a government wants to ignore the status of a species and the warning signs, it can and will and they seem to do just that. The Red List sometimes simply states that more research work is required as not enough is known (for example the Indochinese tiger in Laos). Then probably nothing happens.

There are no international laws governing the protection of the tiger. I think there should be because the tiger today in particular belongs to the world and not to individual countries. Although organisations such as the World Bank work at an international level on tiger conservation. Save The Tiger Fund is also cross-governmental and has provided substantial funds.

The Sunquists say that novel methods need to be implemented such as devising a way for tigers to live in the same areas as people rather than shunting them off into reserves. It is fair to say that reserves do not seem to be that successful. They are arguably poorly managed and sometimes too small it could be argued (see Indian Bengal Tiger Reserves). Although even small reserves can support a good tiger population provided the prey base is high. 58 principal prey can support 16.8 tigers per 100 km²7. Small reserves of 300+ km² can support a tiger population that is viable it seems. Although there is conflicting information that says that all reserves are too small14.

Camera trap technology has advanced and is a useful tool to assess population sizes even when the population densities are very low.

save the tiger fund strategy for saving the tiger

Governments have sometimes provided substantial funding for conservation e.g. Project Tiger (new window) (Bengal tiger) but is Project Tiger a partial failure? The Save The Tiger Fund funded the production of work that sets out their view on how to conserve wild tigers for the period to 2005 - 201514. Here are a selection of conclusions from that work:
  • Tiger habitat decreased by 40% over an 11 year period 1995 - 2006 (the date of the document new window)
  • Tigers occupy 7% of their historical range
  • Asian economic growth lends itself to tiger decline
  • tiger landscapes are recommended (as opposed to isolated reserves). These are core areas linked by corridors. They say that tigers can only survive at the "landscape level". The recommended complete package can be summarized in the chart below as I understand it.
  • Please read the full document (new window). The chart opposite is not and cannot be the full report. Space on this page doesn't allow that.
  • I make the point on this page: Tiger Bone, that the trade in wild tiger parts is not sustainable and is therefore a bad business model. The best way to preserve the tiger is to fight on the commercial level as it is that which motivates.
In 2006 Sanderson and his team surveyed 77 biologists on the effectivess of the conservation measures where they work - the "Tiger Conservation Landscapes". I have taken the top, middle and bottom three1:

Most effective measures Education of local people
Education of school children
Training of protected area staff
Average effectiveness Enforcement of existing laws regarding tigers
Local publicity about tigers
Monitoring of prey populations
Least effective Habitat enhancement
Captive breeding facility
Reintroduction of tigers


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