Photograph by Steve Winter
Scientists estimate only about 3,000 wild tigers are left in the entire world. Tiger territory once stretched from Turkey to the Russian Far East and just a century ago, before the terrible toll of hunting and habitat destruction, 100,000 tigers inhabited the wilds of Asia. Now their descendents hang on in a tiny fraction of their former range, prowling fragmented pockets of habitat where keeping enough tigers alive to breed is increasingly difficult. Three of the nine tiger subspecies (Bali, Javan, and Caspian tigers) became extinct during the 20th century, leaving only the half dozen living species featured in this gallery.
Recent studies show in just three tiger generations (21 to 27 years) the big cats' population has shrunk by 50 percent and their range has also been halved. Shrinking space and rampant poaching for traditional Chinese medicine present a formidable challenge to the future of wild tigers.
About half of all living tigers are Bengal tigers (pictured here), sometimes called Indian tigers because most live in that nation. Others are in Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, China, and Myanmar. Given space and prey Panthera tigris tigris can thrive in many types of forests or grasslands, and the Bengal is the only subspecies that also inhabits mangrove forests, in the Sundarbans island group in the Bay of Bengal.
Tigers tend to be solitary animals but where food is plentiful they can be found in relatively great densities, which makes India perhaps the best place to spot them. Bengal tigers are the world's most likely to enjoy an abundance of pigs, deer, and other hoofed prey. An average of 18 tigers can occupy 39 square miles in India's Corbett Tiger Reserve, while only a single Sumatran tiger could survive in that same area, and a male Amur tiger would need 10 times that amount, or 386 square miles.
Big Cats Initiative
National Geographic is working to avert the extinction of tigers, lions, cheetahs, and other big cats with the Big Cats Initiative, a comprehensive program that supports innovative projects. Learn how you can help save these animals.
Photograph by Konrad Wothe/Minden Pictures
Siberian tigers, also known as Amur tigers, prowl not Siberian taiga but the chilly forests of eastern Russia. On the brink of extinction and numbering just a few dozen during the mid-20th century, some 400 to 500 of these cats live today in Russia, with a few more in China and possibly North Korea.
This subspecies' historical comeback is a remarkable conservation success story that gives some hope for the future of all wild tigers. A female tiger can have 15 cubs over a lifetime and there is still some room for healthy populations to roam—but only if humans can curb poaching and make a commitment to let them live. That may be easiest to achieve in the Amur tiger's vast northern woodlands, which offer fewer human residents and more space to be wild. In fact the Russian Far East is home to the biggest unfragmented tiger habitat left in the world. The tigers in this vast realm grow large as well, feeding on deer and boar to stretch nearly 11 feet long and topping the scales at 660 pounds.
Recent genetic studies suggest that the extinct Caspian tiger (Panthera tigris virgata), last seen in the 1970s, was in fact the same subspecies as the Siberian tiger (Panthera tigris altaica). If so, this same subspecies stretched across a vast area from the Russian Far East, west through the forests lying north of Mongolia's steppes, and into modern Turkey and Iran.
Photograph by Steve Winter
Genetic studies have suggested that the Indochinese tiger may be the ancestral species of all tigers, the thick branch from which the other subspecies stemmed off between 108,000 and 72,000 years ago.
As late as the 1990s, tigers were thought to be relatively common in this region of Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and southwestern China, though they hadn't been extensively studied. Today the IUCN reports that the cats are on the verge of critically endangered status, with no known evidence of breeding tigers in Cambodia or Vietnam and just a handful hanging on elsewhere. A total of only perhaps 300 Indochinese tigers live in the wild.
Aggressive poaching has decimated both the Indochinese tiger (Panthera tigris corbetti) and the populations of the wild pigs, deer, banteng, and other large bovids on which they depend as prey. Economic development projects in the region—such as roads, dams, and mines—have also put the squeeze on some cats, though large tracts of good tropical forests remain here, which may provide a hopeful habitat if effective protections are put in place. (Learn about National Geographic's Big Cats Initiative.)
Photograph by Joel Sartore
Perhaps 500 Malayan tigers live in the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula (Malaysia and Thailand), but their tropical rain forest habitat is dwindling. As trees fall for farms and other development these tigers increasingly come into conflicts with people—such as when they prey on livestock—and often pay with their lives.
Tigers are sparsely scattered on the Malay Peninsula, occurring where small pockets of forest or vegetation are isolated enough to hold them and can provide enough prey to nourish them. It's estimated that only one or two Malayan tigers can live in a 39-square-mile territory here, because deer, boar, and other tiger food is thin on the ground. But these cats do have some humans on their side. The Global Tiger Initiative has commended the Malaysian government for its plan to connect tiger populations with wildlife corridors, making breeding more viable, and to double the numbers of its national animal by 2022.
Only in 2004 did genetic studies establish Panthera tigris jacksoni as a subspecies separate from their Indochinese tiger relatives on the Asian mainland. To the naked eye the coloration, patterns, skull shapes, and other physical characteristics between these two subspecies are nearly identical.
Photograph by Joel Sartore
More than a thousand tigers prowled the Indonesian island of Sumatra when the animals were surveyed in 1978. Today, fewer than half that number survive here and those cats are under siege by poachers and ceaseless deforestation of their home forests fueled by the pulp, paper, and palm oil industries.
A 2004 report from TRAFFIC, the IUCN/WWF effort to track the illegal wildlife trade, suggested that poachers were killing at least 40 of the critically endangered animals every year.
The Sumatran tiger (Panthera tigris sumatrae) is the last of the “island tiger” subspecies. The neighboring Indonesian islands of Java and Bali were once home to their own distinct tigers, but the Bali tiger (Panthera tigris balica) and the Javan tiger (Panthera tigris sondaica) each died out during the 20th century. Conservationists are working hard to help their Sumatran relatives avoid the same fate.
South China Tiger
Photograph courtesy Lonely Planet
Time may have already run out for the South China tiger (Panthera tigris amoyensis), which hasn't been documented in the wild since the early 1970s. While a few individuals may still survive, the subspecies is possibly extinct in the wild—though in the 1950s its population was estimated at a (possibly quite inflated) 4,000 individuals, which would have been more than all the wild tigers living today.
South China tigers were victims of eradication campaigns during China's Great Leap Forward era of the 1950s and 1960s. Protection came in 1979, when hunting was banned, and China instituted more active conservation measures in the 1990s, but by that time populations had fallen irrecoverably.
Some conservationists maintain that not enough protected, undisturbed land remains in the region to house a viable breeding population. Not everyone agrees. A group called Save China's Tigers, working with state forestry authorities, has launched a controversial “rewilding” project in which cats from the subspecies' tiny captive population are transported to a South African reserve where they can breed and learn to survive for possible reintroduction in China. Though many conservationists take a dim view of the prospect, as of 2012 a dozen cubs had been bred and the effort was still moving forward.