In the forests of the night
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?...
William Blake's 'The Tyger' is the most anthologized poem in all of English literature. Lord of the Jungle, tiger has captured human imagination through ages unlike any other creature.
Largest amongst all existing cats, tiger compares in size to the biggest feline fossils ever found. Named 'Panthera Tigris', tigers are characterized by their orange coat and black stripes, the pattern of which uniquely identifies each individual tiger. With a whitish belly, tiger's coat is designed to disperse their outline, aiding them in camouflage as they stalk their prey. Tigers generally weigh in a wide range - from two hundred and fifty to eight hundred pounds - depending on the individual subspecies and gender of the animal. Female Sumatran Tigers may weigh around two hundred seventy pounds, whereas adult male Siberian Tigers can be as heavy as eight hundred pounds. In fact the largest ever recorded Siberian Tiger in captivity weighed over one thousand pounds! The average length is between 2.5 to 3.5 meters, again subject to variation amongst subspecies.
The reason behind these size variations is evolutionary adaptation of the tiger to varying environments in different regions of the world. The large Amur tiger prowls over huge territories in Siberia, tackling massive prey animals and having to cope with bitter cold - thus evolving into the biggest tiger species with a thick fur. The Bengal Tiger comes next with its notoriety for great ferocity and occasional man-eating in the mangroves of Sundarban (more on that later!). In fact big male Bengal tigers, particularly those in northern India and Nepal, weigh close to the Siberian Tiger. Following are the Indochinese Tiger, Malayan Tiger, South China Tiger and Sumatran Tiger. The other three subspecies - the Caspian Tiger, Balinese Tiger and Javan Tiger have all gone extinct in the past century.
Apex predators, tigers are solitary hunters designed to take down huge prey animals. They are excellent stalkers and display great cunning in patiently pursuing and ambushing their prey. Despite their great size, they can reach speeds up to 60km/hr and leap up to 10 metres. The primary mode of attack is a sudden charge and leap to unbalance the animal. Next they use their muscular forearms to hold down the hunted whilst they severe their spine (or suffocate by crushing the windpipe in case of big animals like gaur and water buffalo) using their long canines and strong jaws. Even still only a fraction of the hunts are a success for the tiger. Therefore it eats a lot during one sitting once it makes a kill (usually every four or five days). Next it hides the carcass and usually returns to it over the next couple of days to devour the scraps. Usual prey is deer, buffalo, gaur. However a hungry tiger will go for anything from young elephants, rhinos, crocodiles, leopards, bears and even humans. Whereas conflicts between tigers and elephants are rare, tigers have been known to charge and maul Indian bull elephants. A tiger can climb to the back of the elephant in a single leap and viciously attack the tourists atop - as is often chronicled by historians of the British India.
Tigers are territorial animals and mark their domain in the forest by leaving scat and urine trails. Males are very defensive of their region and this frequently leads to conflict between individual tigers, leading to severe injury and even death. A male's territory frequently overlaps those of several females, to which he mates as they come in estrus. Pregnancy lasts for around three and a half months and usually four or five cubs are born. In the wild not all of these survive since the female is often not able to hunt enough to feed all of them as they depend on her for their food until one and a half years of age. Also randomly, other male tigers may kill the cubs to bring the female into heat.
Despite all its magnificence the tale of the tiger has been a sorry one over the past century. Their number in the wild has dwindled from over one hundred thousand to nearly seven thousand today, with the Bengal Tiger having the healthiest population among existing tiger species (thanks largely to an initiative by the Indian Government in the 1970's that led to 'Project Tiger', one of the more successful conservation programs worldwide). Still many are killed annually by poachers for use in Chinese traditional medicines that make ridiculous claim about the aphrodisiac and strengthening abilities of tiger parts - with no scientific evidence to back them. Others are threatened by habitat destruction and ever increasing human populations. Of the others, the South China tiger is in immediate threat of extinction owing to ruthless hunting in the 1960's when it was declared as a 'pest' by the then communist government. Despite the passage of a law protecting them in 1977, the few remaining tigers in China lack genetic biodiversity to sustain them as a specie.
There are some glimmers of hope though and NGOs and independent organizations all across the globe are taking many aggressive steps to tackle the issue of poaching as well as trying to establish new reserves in order to sustain tiger population in the wild (which at present is less than their numbers in captivity). One of the aims of this blog is also to highlight the conservation issues surrounding cats!