In honor of Global Tiger Day 2019 (July 29), Panthera’s team of tiger experts has answered some of your most frequently asked questions about tiger behavior, policy, conservation and culture. We’ve shared some of the Q&A below, or you can watch our experts in action answering your questions on video here.
Tigers have a reputation of being dangerous and scary, but are they actually?
“A 400lb cat with 3-inch canines, platter-size feet tipped with razor sharp claws, and a running speed of 35 mph is definitely dangerous and surely, most would consider scary. That said, 99% of the time when confronted by a human in the forest, a tiger will flee, so while capable of inflicting great harm, they rarely do,” says Panthera’s Tiger Program Director and Chief Scientist, John Goodrich.
Why do tigers have stripes?
Tigers are the only wild cat species with fully striped fur coats. These stripes allow tigers to blend into their environment and sneak up on prey, helping them to be successful hunters, explains Chris Hallam, Panthera’s Thailand Country Coordinator. Biologists use tigers’ stripes to tell each individual apart. Since each tiger’s stripe pattern is unique to them, we can figure out how many different individuals make up a population and track their specific movements and activities using camera traps.
What is the greatest threat to tigers?
Tigers are globally listed as endangered on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. Two of the remaining sub-species – Malayan and Sumatran – are critically endangered. The catastrophic population decline in tigers is driven by a range of threats, including poaching for the illegal wildlife trade, overhunting of prey species by local people, habitat loss and fragmentation and human-tiger conflict.
According to Robert Pickles, Panthera’s Southeast Asia Counter Wildlife Crime Coordinator, the greatest of these threats to tigers is poaching, often with the use of wire snares. Tigers are illegally killed for their body parts, usually sold for use in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). These parts are thought to cure ailments ranging from arthritis to epilepsy, with the greatest demand coming from China. Every single tiger organ is sold on the black market today. Tiger skins and other parts are also used for décor, indicating status and wealth, across Asia.
Do tigers purr?
Tigers cannot purr continually; instead, they can roar thanks to unique modifications of the larynx and an elastic hyoid structure. Tigers are also known to chuff, which is a non-threatening vocalization believed to be used for communication between individuals.
How can we preserve more land to protect tigers while also supporting the local communities?
One way is by providing opportunities for livelihoods that do not depend on forest resources. This is important not only for tigers but also for human well-being. In some places surrounding protected areas with tigers, human population densities are over 1000 people/km2 (2,500 people per square mile) – too many to be supported by small protected areas.
What is Panthera doing to protect tigers?
The tiger is the most endangered of all the big cats: only about 3,900 still exist in the wild. They’ve seen a 96% decline in their range with 40% of that decline happening only in the last decade. John Goodrich is Panthera’s Chief Scientist and head of our Tiger Program. According to him, Panthera’s Tigers Forever initiative includes a unique approach to tackling tiger conservation. The first part of that approach is working to reverse the decline in tiger numbers by selecting key sites for enhanced protection from poaching.
We do this by partnering with local communities for boots-on-the-ground work including employing and training local forest scouts to detect and deter poachers and working with the local judiciary to increase convictions of wildlife criminals. Once we see success in these sites, as we have throughout Nepal and India, we expand our initiative into other sites. Overall, our goal is to reduce tiger poaching and increase and connect tiger populations using habitat corridors to allow a transfer of individuals.
Are any countries where tigers are extinct planning to re-introduce them?
Yes, there are efforts underway to bring tigers back in Cambodia and Kazakhstan. Panthera has been involved in an advisory role by reviewing and commenting on reintroduction plans.
How long do tiger cubs stay with their mothers?
Tigers will usually have litters of two to five cubs each. After three to five months the cubs are weaned off their mother’s milk. By 18 months to two years of age the tigers become independent from their mother entirely. Males will disperse widely but females tend to stay closer to their mother’s territory.
Do subspecies ever interbreed with each other?
There are nine subspecies of tigers but only five are considered non-extinct in the wild: Bengal, Indochinese, Sumatran, Siberian, and Malayan. In captivity, tiger subspecies will interbreed quite readily. Historically, they would have done so in the wild as well in areas where subspecies overlapped (e.g. where the range of Bengal tigers met that of Indochinese tigers in Myanmar), but today, all remaining subspecies are geographically isolated from each other, so the opportunity rarely, if ever, arises.
How do we know how many tigers are left in the world?
According to the most recent surveys of the species across its range, there are less than 4,000 tigers in the wild, with most estimates saying around 3,900. Abishek Harihar, a population ecologist with Panthera’s tiger team, explains that we can estimate the number of tigers left by tracking them using camera traps. These motion-activated cameras are set in prime tiger habitat and remotely send images back to scientists for examination. Using these photos, we can create population estimates to help us determine how many tigers are living in each country and region. Harihar also points out that there is plenty of forest space available in many of these countries for tiger populations to grow—if we let them.