8 Things You Might Not Know About Bengal Tigers

Despite their global fame, these iconic cats remain endangered.

A Bengal tiger walks through Bandhavgarh National Park in Madhya Pradesh, India.
A Bengal tiger walks through Bandhavgarh National Park in Madhya Pradesh, India.

Mint Images / Art Wolfe / Getty Images

The Bengal tiger is an iconic cat, arguably as famous as any other type of tiger left on the planet. Like all tigers, however, it is both admired and endangered, revered by the same species that is wiping it out.

Yet Bengal tigers have been clawing back in recent years, and while they are still far below their historical numbers, they have become a rare bright spot for their beleaguered species. In hopes of shedding more light on these enigmatic cats — and on their struggle to coexist with us — here are a few lesser-known facts about the legendary Bengal tiger.

1. Tiger Taxonomy Is Complicated

Tigers were once divided into several subspecies, but more recent research suggests there are just two subspecies: Panthera tigris tigris in mainland Asia, and P. tigris sondaica in the Greater Sunda Islands. The Bengal tiger was previously considered a subspecies, but is now generally classified as a specific population within P. tigris tigris, which also includes the Caspian, Indochinese, Malayan, Siberian, and South China tigers.

That may seem like a demotion, but the taxonomic details don't diminish the importance of any of these populations, and they have little effect on the longstanding cultural cachet held by Bengal tigers.

2. Bengal Tigers Are Big, Even for Big Cats

Bengal tiger leaping through tall grass
Bengal tigers are among the largest big cats of any kind left on Earth. eROMAZe / Getty Images

Bengal tigers have the longest canine teeth of any living cat, and also rival the Siberian tiger for the title of largest cats on Earth, both in terms of length and weight. The Siberian (or Amur) tiger is often cited as the largest cat overall, capable of growing up to 12 feet (3.7 meters) long and weighing more than 660 pounds (300 kilograms). They are highly variable in size, though, and may now be smaller overall than in the past due to selective pressure from human hunters killing larger individuals.

Bengal tigers may not quite match the largest of their Siberian cousins, but they can grow to similar sizes and weights. The largest Bengal tiger on record reportedly weighed 569 pounds (258 kg) and stretched about 10 feet (3 meters) long.

3. Their Diverse Diets Include Venomous Snakes

Bengal tigers largely prey on ungulates, including a wide variety of deer, antelopes, wild pigs, and wild bovids, but they also hunt smaller prey such as gray langur monkeys. In some places, tigers may get as much as 10% of their food by killing domesticated livestock, posing a challenge for conservation as their habitat is increasingly fragmented by farmland.

There have been a few known instances of Bengal tigers taking down Indian rhinoceroses and Indian elephants, and they're also known to sometimes attack other predators, including sloth bears and leopards. They have even been found to prey on venomous snakes; in a post-mortem of one male Bengal tiger from 2009, researchers found a king cobra and a monocled cobra in his stomach.

4. They Have a Deep Cultural Significance for Humans

tiger on Pashupati Seal
A tiger can be seen on the righthand side of the Pashupati Seal from the Indus Valley Civilization. Columbia University / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Bengal tigers have been woven into the cultures of India and surrounding countries for thousands of years. A tiger is one of the animals depicted on the Pashupati seal, a roughly 4,000-year-old artifact from the Indus Valley Civilization, and also features prominently in the symbols of the Chola dynasty. Bengal tigers have remained an important source of symbolism for the region ever since, and today serve as the national animal of both India and Bangladesh. Tigers have a long literary legacy, too, from Shere Khan of "The Jungle Book" to Richard Parker in "The Life of Pi."

5. India Is Home to About 70% of All Wild Tigers

The Bengal tiger is native to the Indian subcontinent, where it has lived for at least 12,000 years, dating back to the Late Pleistocene. Today, it exists in the countries of India, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Bhutan.

With a population of roughly 3,000 Bengal tigers, India now has the largest remaining population of Bengal tigers, as well as the highest number of wild tigers of any kind in a single country, representing about 70% of the species' entire wild population. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Bangladesh is home to between 300 and 500 Bengal tigers, Nepal has about 200, and Bhutan has somewhere between 50 and 150.

6. There Aren't Many Bengal Tigers Left in Captivity

Overall, there are more tigers living in captivity in the U.S. alone than there are living in the wild globally. Bengal tigers, however, are rarely found in captivity outside India. They've been bred in captivity since 1880, but widely interbred with tigers from other range countries. As a result, many "Bengal tigers" in captivity outside India are not true Bengal tigers, and thus inappropriate for conservation-breeding programs aimed at reintroduction to the wild. Of about 200 registered Bengal tigers in captivity, all reportedly live within India.

7. Bengal Tigers Are Rebounding

A Bengal tiger and her cub walk through Bandhavgarh National Park, Madhya Pradesh, India.
A Bengal tiger and her cub walk through Bandhavgarh National Park, Madhya Pradesh, India. Shivang Mehta / Getty Images

As a species, tigers across Asia numbered as many as 100,000 individuals in the early 1900s, but then suffered a steep and prolonged decline, due largely to a mix of habitat loss and unsustainable hunting. Between 1875 and 1925, an estimated 80,000 tigers were killed in India alone, and by the 1960s the country's tiger population was on the brink.

That prompted a series of efforts to save Bengal tigers from fading away. India outlawed the killing or capture of wild tigers in 1971, made the Bengal tiger its national animal in 1972, and launched its Project Tiger conservation program in 1973, sparking a boom in tiger sanctuaries around the country that's still growing. After having dropped to a low of fewer than 2,000 tigers, India's total tiger population had grown to 2,200 in 2014 and nearly 3,000 in 2018 (the country conducts a census every four years).

8. But They Need a Lot More Room

India has achieved great success in boosting its tiger population, but there have been problems. Although tigers have been reproducing, some conservationists worry they aren't dispersing enough into new territories. A single male tiger may require a territory of nearly 40 square miles (100 square km), and aside from causing issues with their fellow tigers, running out of space can lead to conflict between tigers and people.

Tiger habitats are increasingly fragmented by roads, railways, farmland, and other forms of human development, resulting in more cats preying on livestock or otherwise clashing with people. Along with ongoing poaching and depletion of prey species, this has limited the success of India's tiger conservation efforts, although experts do see reasons for optimism.

According to renowned tiger expert Ullas Karanth, if prey species can rebound and people can be kept out, there is currently enough connected forest cover in India to support a population of 10,000 to 15,000 Bengal tigers.