Types of Tigers: 3 Extinct, 6 Endangered

Two Bengal tigers in their natural habitat

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One of nature’s most beautiful contributions to wildlife is the world’s largest cat species: the majestic tiger (Panthera tigris). In the past, tigers could be found throughout most of eastern and southern Asia, parts of central and western Asia, and even the Middle East, near the Caspian Sea. However, the human population has grown and encroached on tiger habitats, causing the historic tiger range to decrease to just 7% of its original territory.

While all tigers can be identified by their signature stripes and massive size, not all of these big cats are the same. In fact, no two tigers have the same stripe pattern, just like a fingerprint in humans, and specific stripes can be so unique that researchers even use them to identify and study individual cats in the wild. Globally, there are nine subspecies or types of tigers, but only six remain. The Bali, Caspian, and Javan tiger subspecies are already extinct, and the Malayan, Sumatran, South China, Indochinese, Bengal, and Amur subspecies are either endangered or critically endangered, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List.

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Malayan Tiger

A Malayan tiger near a waterfall

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The Malayan tiger (Panthera tigris jacksoni) is listed as critically endangered, with only about 80-120 mature individuals left and a declining population. In 2014, it was estimated that 250-340 Malayan tigers still existed, a decrease from the 500 individuals estimated about 11 years earlier, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Historically, this subspecies of tiger was found in the forested areas through peninsular Malaysia, and about 3,000 of them lived in the wild in the 1950s. Development made most of their land unsuitable and they became disconnected from the forest, potential mates, and their prey.

Malayan tigers have only been recognized as a subspecies since 2004 and few physical characteristics distinguish them from Indochinese tigers in the same region. A study published in 2010 actually found no clear morphological differences between the two subspecies, so most of the differences can be found in the DNA.

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Sumatran Tiger

A small Sumatran tiger

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Sumatran tigers (Panthera tigris sumatrae) are known for being the smallest tiger subspecies, but that doesn’t mean that they’re cute and cuddly. The males still max out around 310 pounds and 8 feet long, though some can be as small as 165 pounds (mainly females). Why is the Sumatran tiger so much smaller than the rest of the tiger kingdom? One theory suggests that the subspecies adapted its smaller size in order to reduce its energy demands, making it easier to survive on the area’s smaller prey animals such as wild pigs and small deer. These cats can also be identified by their darker fur and thicker black stripes.

Sumatran tigers are also known as Sunda tigers, as they were originally only found in the small group of islands in Indonesia of the same name. These days, it is estimated that there are less than 400 left, all of them condensed to the forests in the island of Sumatra. This is exceptionally important considering that Sumatra is the only place on Earth where tigers, rhinos, orangutans, and elephants live together in the wild within the same ecosystem. Protecting these tigers is important for maintaining the delicate balance of many other threatened animals, and the presence of the Sumatran tiger is evidence of the important biodiversity of the region.

Apart from habitat loss due to deforestation for palm oil and Acacia plantations, this subspecies remains threatened by rampant poaching. In an effort to increase tiger conservation, the government of Indonesia has implemented jail time and steep fines for anyone caught hunting tigers, though sadly the market still exists for tiger parts and products both in the country itself and throughout Asia

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Indochinese Tiger

An Indochinese tiger in Thailand

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The Indochinese tiger (Panthera tigris corbetti) is found in Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, and southwestern China, though its status is so poorly known that it is creeping steadily toward critically endangered. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, these tigers were still considered widespread but weren’t greatly studied until 2010, when researchers found that hunters had depleted the Indochinese tiger’s prey resources exponentially and caused the population to fall by more than 70%. Currently, it is believed that only 352 of these tigers remain, according to the IUCN.

Indochinese tigers average about 9 feet from nose to tail and prefer both tropical and subtropical climates as well as broadleaf forests and dry forests. This is partially the reason why they were able to adapt so easily to multiple regions — their range contains the largest combined area of tiger habitat on Earth and is equal to the size of France.

Along with limited prey, their biggest threats are shrinking habitats due to expanding human population and poaching. Areas where Indochinese tigers are still found have an increasing demand for tiger parts for use in folk remedies and traditional medicines, while development and road construction continues to fragment habitats. Most of these tigers (upwards of 250 individuals) live inside the Dawna Tenasserim landscape on the Thailand-Myanmar border, so this area offers the greatest potential for conservation efforts.

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Bengal Tiger

A female Bengal tiger in Rajasthan, India

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Disney (and Rudyard Kipling) fans will no doubt recognize this tiger as the inspiration behind Shere Khan — Mowgli’s feline foe in the movie and novel The Jungle Book. The Bengal tiger's (Panthera tigris tigris) signature orange coat and stripes are complemented by black ears with a white spot on the back of each, and its weight can range anywhere from 300 to over 500 pounds. They also have some of the longest teeth in the big cat kingdom.

Occurring in India, Nepal, Bhutan, and Bangladesh, and with fewer than 2,500 individuals left, the IUCN has listed the Bengal tiger as endangered since 2010. While the situation doesn’t seem nearly as dire for the Bengal as for the South China tiger or the Malayan tiger, the regions where Bengal tigers reside face their fair share of obstacles. It's estimated that Bengal tigers have seen a 50% decrease in population over the last decade due to poaching and habitat loss. The IUCN predicts a similar reduction could be expected over the next three tiger generations unless we can achieve more efficient conservation efforts.

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South China Tiger

An adult South China tiger

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It has been about three decades since an official or biologist has seen a South China Tiger (Panthera tigris amoyensis) in the wild, helping it earn its title as the most critically endangered of all tiger subspecies. While there are still occasional unconfirmed reports of these tigers in the 16 counties that once made up its historic range, continued survival remains unlikely due to threats of low prey density, habitat degradation, fragmented populations, and hunting. There was a time when the South China Tiger population was estimated at over 4,000 back in the 1950s, but by 1982 only about 150-200 remained. The South China tiger has a similar build to the Bengal tiger, with the biggest differences in skull shape and teeth length. Its coat is a lighter shade of orange and its stripes are narrower and set farther apart, as well.

The good news is, officials have already proposed programs aimed at reintroducing these animals back into southern China; this would be one of the world’s first major tiger reintroduction programs in existence, though scientists remain uncertain about factors constraining these efforts. In 2018, Cambridge conducted a global survey of almost 300 scholars and practitioners who were experts in wildlife reintroduction and conservation. The survey found that, while over 70% supported the potential for South China tiger reintroduction, many expressed concern. Factors such as planning and implementations, proper adherence to IUCN guidelines, and the validity of current tiger threat elimination were of greatest concern, with many believing that China would have the capacity to carry out the program but may not have the experience.

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Amur (Siberian) Tiger

A Siberian tiger walking in the snow

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The most defining characteristic of the Amur, or Siberian, tiger (Panthera tigris altaica) would have to be its massive size. The largest on the list, these cats can weigh up to 660 pounds and measure 10 feet long, and are also known for their pale orange fur and brown-colored stripes. The largest captive tiger on record was, unsurprisingly, an Amur tiger named Jaipur, who came in at an impressive 932 pounds and almost 11 feet long.

Amur tigers once roamed throughout the Russian Far East, parts of northern China, and Korea, but were driven to near extinction from hunting by the 1940s. When numbers reached 40 individuals in the wild, Russia made history by becoming the first country on Earth to grant the Amur tiger full protection. Today, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) estimates that around 450 of these giants exist in the wild, though they still remain threatened by illegal poaching, which is considered especially dangerous because of the superior organization, international connections, and advanced weaponry of Russian Far East poachers. Amur tigers also face challenges from habitat loss from large scale illegal logging, which also takes away valuable food sources from tiger prey.

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