The tiger, the largest species of cat in the world and rivalled only by the lion in strength and ferocity, is featured prominently in the ancient mythology and folklore of different countries throughout history. Apart from picturing on flags, coats of arms and as mascots and flags for different sporting teams, it is also recognised as the national animal of several countries like India, Bangladesh, South Korea and Malaysia.
The beautiful animal with dark vertical stripes on orange fur with a white underside, sharp teeth, strong jaws and agile bodies, once ranged widely across Asia from Russia to Sumatra and Indochina. However, their populations have been dwindling alarmingly since the early 20th century and have been locally extinct from China, Islands of Java and Bali, Central, Western and many countries in Southeast Asia. It is even endangered throughout its present range, which stretches from the Siberian temperate forests to the subtropical forests in the Indian subcontinent, Sumatra and Indochina, comprising of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.
The White Tiger
The Siberian tiger, also known as the Amur tiger, equipped with longer, softer and paler fur, is the largest subspecies with males weighing up to 660 pounds (300 kilograms) and measuring 10 feet (3 m). But the colour of the coat of the Bengal tiger, popularly known as the Royal Bengal tiger, which accounts for about half of the total tiger population, varies from yellow to light orange and the shade of its stripes range from dark brown to black.
Nevertheless, its belly and the interior parts of its limbs are white and the tail is orange with black rings. The bright reddish tan coats of the tigers of Sumatra and Indo China are beautifully marked with almost black vertical stripes, although their underparts, the cheeks and the conspicuous large spot over the eyes, are whitish. However, the white tiger has white fur with dark sepia-brown stripes and blue eyes, as it lacks melanin.
The tiger, one of the few cat species with its bright coat adorned with almost black stripes, has a muscular body with powerful forelimbs, a large head and a tail that is about half the length of its body. While the males vary in total length from 8 to 13 feet and weigh between 90 and 300 kg, the females are 6.5 to 9 feet long and weigh 65 to 167 kg. Rather than dense canopied forests, they prefer grasslands, forests mixed with grassland and deciduous forests, where the highest number of prey species is available.
Unlike the other big cats, the tiger is less tolerant of heat, as it is habituated in the temperate and subtropical forests of eastern Asia, which may be the reason why it is an adept swimmer, enjoy bathing, keeping cool in the heat of the day andeven climb trees, if necessary.
Using sight and sound to identify prey, the tiger primarily hunts at night. By camouflaging with the help of its striped coat in the surroundings, it patiently waits for prey to come near. At the most opportune moment, it pounces on the prey powerfully, leaps onto its quarry, uses its powerful forelimbs to hold onto the prey, knocks it over and grabs the throat or nape with its teeth to finish the victim by breaking or biting its neck. Although the tiger is capable of taking down larger prey like adult gaur and wild water buffalo, it prefers fairly large prey such as deer, monkeys, porcupines and wild pigs, but generally avoids big mammals like full grown elephants and rhinoceros. After making a kill and consuming what it can, it tries to hide the carcass from vultures and other scavengers for a future meal. It has been observed that an adult tiger can go without food for up to two weeks, but after that gorges as much as 34 kg of flesh at one time.
Adult tigers, especially males, are solitary animals and they establish and maintain their own territories, varying in size and nature depending on the presence of other tigers in the area, availability of water, an abundance of prey and the nature of the terrain. To mark the territory, the male marks trees by spraying urine and anal gland secretions, faecal deposits, scrapings on the ground and claw marking of trees. However, despite everything, confrontations do occur, sometimes resulting in injury and even death. The most hostile confrontations generally occur between two males when a female is in oestrus, which often results in the death of one of the males. Like other big cats, tigers also roar, especially during the mating season or an aggressive confrontation. Although an adult of either sex will sometimes share its kill with others, male tigers are generally more intolerant of other males within their territories than females of other females.
While male tigers sexually mature at about 4 or 5 years old, females reach sexual maturity between 3 to 4 years. There is no fixed breeding season for the tigers, but most often mating takes place during the cooler months between November and April. Mating is frequent and noisy and after the gestation period of around100 days, the females give birth to two or three cubs, rarely as many as six, in a safe place like in a dense thicket, among tall grasses, a secluded or rocky crevice. Cubs weighing 0.75 to 1.5 kilograms are born with eyes closed, which are not opened, until the cubs are six to 14 days old. The cubs are weaned after five to six months, when they start to accompany their mother on territorial walks and hunting. Although the energetic young ones attempt to huntinstinctivelyon their own even at the early age of 11 months,they become completely independent around 18 to 20 months of age.
As the tiger is closely related to the lion, captive tigers were bred lions to create Liger and Tigon. While the liger is a cross between a male lion and a tigress, the tigon is a cross between a lioness and a male tiger.
The life span of tigers in the wild is usually between 10 and 15 years, but in captivity, a tiger can live up to 20 years. Although their population in the world was estimated at one hundred thousand at the beginning of the 20th century, it dwindled alarmingly to around 7,500 at the close of the century. Since the time unknown, the tigers were killed as they posed a danger to humans and apart from that, they were also hunted by a class of people, as they considered it a prized trophy. Tiger hunting was an admired manly sport by the ruling British in colonial India, Rajas, maharajas and the aristocrats of the erstwhile princely states of pre-independent India. However, their major threats also include habitat destruction and indiscriminate poaching for their fur and body parts. Finally, in the 1990s, a new approach to tiger conservation was developed to save the beautiful animal from extinction. However, long before that, tiger hunting for sport was officially banned in India in 1972.