What have tigers got to do with Africa, or more specifically South Africa, you may well ask? Well, this article is a two-part edition. In the first, we will explore the tiger and the issues they are facing. In the second, we will explore a fascinating project in South Africa. So, let’s begin…
The tiger is a big cat – actually, the biggest cat! Their weight can vary from 100kg to around 300kg!! Technically, the largest tiger ever was a male Siberian tiger named Jaipur. At nine years old, he weighed in at 423kg! Being captive, he was no doubt “clinically overweight”. The largest wild tigers seem to weigh in at close to 400kg (stats very sadly come from tiger hunting records). Whilst these animals are obviously the exceptions, they highlight just how large these cats are!! By comparison, the largest lions weigh in at around 270kg.
Typically solitary, and relying on sight and hearing rather than the smell of the prey, tigers are powerful hunters with sharp teeth, strong jaws and agile bodies. They have a bite force of around 1,050 psi (they bite almost twice as hard as lions do). As they are too large and heavy to run for long distances, they generally ambush their prey, overpowering it from any angle, using their body size and strength to knock prey off balance. With regard to human-wildlife conflict, tigers (in theory) never hunt humans except in desperation (usually an injured or ill tiger which can no longer catch its usual prey and must resort to a smaller, slower target). Some, however, do see man as prey and will continue along this road until they are shot. A perfect example of this is the notorious Champawat Maneater – an injured tigress that went on to kill at least 436 humans. Shot in the face in Nepal in the late 1890s (leaving her with broken upper and lower canine teeth on the right side – which meant that she was not able to hunt her usual prey), she began attacking humans in Rupal village in western Nepal. After 200 confirmed human kills, the Nepal army also joined the chase – to no avail. The large hunt chased her across the river Sarda onto the Indian side. Almost all her attacks happened during the day, with women or young girls making up the majority of her victims. They were caught when they went into the forest to collect fodder for their cattle. Eventually Jim Corbett managed to hunt and shoot her. This hunter eventually turned into a conservationist, making huge contributions to wildlife.
Whilst there is actually only one tiger species, each ‘type’ of tiger (of which there were originally nine) was considered a subspecies. In 2017, the IUCN recognized only two tiger subspecies, commonly referred to as the continental tiger and the Sunda island tiger. “All remaining island tigers are found only in Sumatra, with tigers in Java and Bali now extinct. These are popularly known as Sumatran tigers. The continental tigers currently include the Bengal, Malayan, Indochinese and Amur (Siberian) tiger populations, while the Caspian tiger is extinct in the wild. The South China tiger is believed to be functionally extinct.” Why is this important? The issue of sub-species has always been controversial, and the use of subspecies for conservation purposes even more so (Gippoliti and Amori 2007). The term ‘subspecies’ has traditionally been especially prone to political use and misuse. Why this is so important as a concept will become clear in the next article. My personal opinion is that when a species is facing extinction, ivory tower semantic debates on subspecies become null and void.
The tendency of an individual animal to define a finite space as its own habitat from which it will fight off trespassing animals of its own species is known as ‘territoriality’. A “home range” is the area over which the animal normally travels in search of food. So “territory” is the protected part of the home range. There are many factors that influence a tiger’s territory. Chief among these, is the distribution and density of prey in the habitat. If one considers the great motivators in any animal’s life, the driving force is “survival” which translates into hunger, thirst and sex (procreation and continuation of their gene line). There is an ongoing survival cost–benefit trade-off, in which the animal seeks to maximize the results for energy expenditure (as a very broad rule a wild animal won’t waste energy on something that doesn’t have a great ‘return on investment’ in terms of survival). So, why waste energy and risk injury defending more territory than you actually need? It thus makes sense that prey-rich tiger territories will be much smaller. For example, male tigers in Ranthambhore India (where the prey concentrations are high) have territories that range in size from 5 to 150 km2. In Siberia where the prey concentrations are much lower, male tiger territories range in size from 800 to 1200 km2. These are important facts to remember in relation to our second article…
Tigers are globally listed as “Endangered” on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. They have lost an estimated 95% of their historical range, with their habitat having been destroyed, degraded, and fragmented by human activities. Add poaching, retaliatory killings and the awful illicit trade of both animals and body parts into this mix, and it is not difficult to see why they are in a race against extinction. Common consensus puts the number of wild tigers left in the world today at 4500. Compare this number against wild cheetah (between 6500 and 7100), wild lion (20 000), wild white rhino (16 000) and wild black rhino (6200), and you start to understand just how low the tiger numbers are…
Tigers, on average, give birth to two to four cubs every two years (and if all the cubs in a litter die, a second litter may be produced within five months), and in the wild the mortality rate in the first two years of life is very high (at least 50%). Add to this the factors mentioned above, and you have a looming disaster.
Tigers were first protected as an endangered species under CITES in 1975, making commercial trade illegal. That said, the commercial trade is booming to unprecedented levels. International and South African farmers illegally breed tigers and other big cats for sale into the luxury goods and traditional medicine markets. The whole business is sickening, and a subject too vast to cover here.
But let’s focus on the positive… Wild tiger numbers are slowly increasing, and next week we feature an amazing endangered big cat conservation project right here in South Africa!!
Jacqui Ikin & The Cross Country Team