As a tiger lover, over the years I’ve had plenty of occasions to talk about tigers and everything related to them. It’s one of my favourite subjects and I’m always happy to dwell on this kind of conversation !
Everybody likes tigers, but surprisingly enough, many people ignore even the basic facts about them.
Here are the 10 most recurring questions I get asked about these incredible striped animals on a regular basis.
1 – Is the Siberian tiger white ?
If you are reading this, you are probably a tiger lover and you must think I am joking 🙂 I swear, I am not ! This is absolutely THE most recurring question I get asked by people when talking about tigers.
The answer is no, the Siberian tiger is not white.
Siberian tiger caught on camera trap, courtesy of Land of the Leopard National Park, http://leopard-land.ru/
The biggest in the tiger family, these magnificent cats live in the Russian Far East.
Also known as Amur tigers, because of the Amur river that crosses part of their territory, they mostly thrive in dense Korean pine broadleaf forest and taiga.
The myth about them being white comes from the idea that they mostly live in vast, snowy habitats. As a matter of fact, snow is not the only habitat feature of Siberia. Even in winter, dense trees and many different shades colour the wilderness of the taiga.
Siberian tiger caught on camera trap, courtesy of PRNCO Tiger Center, http://siberian-tiger.ru
Summers can be quite hot in Siberia and of course there is no snow. A tiger with a bright white coat would have no camouflage abilities in the thick forest and would stand no chance to survive.
Siberian tiger caught on camera trap, courtesy of PRNCO Tiger Center, http://siberian-tiger.ru
2 . So, is the white tiger a completely different subspecies ?
White tigers are neither a sub-species nor are they albinos. They are Bengal tigers whose parents carry a recessive gene that controls coat colour.
Extremely rare in the wild because of their lack of camouflage skills, their genealogy starts with Mohan, captured in the forests of Madhya Pradesh, central India, in 1951 by the Maharaja of Rewa.
When Mohan mated with one of his daughters they produced the first litter of white cubs who are the ancestors of all captive white tigers.
Fascinated by the colour of their coat and by the very lucrative possibilities of exploitation, circuses and zoos owner still continue to inbreed related tigers that carry the gene in the hope of having white cubs. Because of inbreeding, it is very common in white tigers to carry genetic dysfunctions, from crossed eyes to malformations and mental problems.
Every year, many white captive cubs have to be disposed of because of these malformations.
In order to produce larger specimens, white tigers have also been crossed with Siberian tigers. It goes without saying that such unnatural breeding can often lead to further genetic problems.
These breeding activities are not part of any conservation program. It’s a form of exploitation only pursued for lucrative purposes. In my opinion, it should be labelled as an act of cruelty and therefore stopped.
White tiger in captivity, stock image
3 . So … how many tigers are there in Africa ?
There are no tigers in Africa. Africa’s most iconic big cats are lions, cheetah and leopards.
Asia is the exclusive habitat of the Panthera tigris species. After 97% of the original tiger range has been lost to human development, only 13 countries are still home to these incredible animals.
India alone is residence to 60% of the world tiger population, with about 2500 individuals of the Bengal sub-species.
If there are absolutely no wild tigers in Africa, it is worth to note that there are some wild lions in Asia.
A small population of Asiatic lions still survives in India’s Gir forest in Gujarat. Once thriving in a vast region from Middle East to India, today only about 600 individuals are still accounted for.
My heart is tiger territory, by Rohan Chakravarty, www.greenhumour.com
4 . Do tigers eat people ?
Tigers are very elusive and shy animals who generally avoid any contact with humans. People are not on a tiger’s menu.
Tigers are strictly carnivore, and their prey generally consists in large and medium sized animals, such as ungulate herbivores up to 90 kg.
Depending on their habitat, tigers would generally hunt various species of deer, wild boar, buffalo but also monkeys and smaller prey.
A healthy tiger population who lives in an area with a good prey base helps regulate the herbivore population and the ecosystem. Therefore, these predators are called “umbrella” species.
Unfortunately, accidents due to animal-human conflict may happen even if rarely. An old or injured tiger that strays too close to human settlements might prey on cattle, or, sometimes, even on people.
Fragmentation of habitats and deforestation may also lead to loss of prey base, pushing predators to venture out of the forest in search of food.
You can read more on human-animal conflict in one of my last articles.
5 . It must be dangerous to go on a tiger safari. How come you’re not scared ?
Early morning safari in the grasslands of Dhikala, Jim Corbett Tiger Reserve, Uttarakhand, India.
Going on a safari in India, in a recognised Tiger Reserve, with a trusted guide is not at all dangerous. On the contrary, it’s an unforgettable experience and, for some, the beginning of a life-long passion.
Visitors can only enter the reserve with a licensed driver and a naturalist who know the area and are aware of all the forest’s rules.
People are not allowed to leave the vehicles at any time – no, you cannot walk freely in a Tiger Reserve. 😉
Another question is whether tourism could somehow be harmful to the animals. Of course the answer is never easy.
Baiting animals and in general not respecting them is wrong. Mass tourism in natural areas is also definitely harmful.
Nevertheless, an eco-responsible tourism can not only be harmless to the ecosystem, but also help to raise awareness for the cause of endangered species. In my opinion, this is the case of most Tiger Reserves in India.
A Tiger Reserve is a protected area defined by government decree where a strict set of rules are applied.
The number of vehicles that enters the forest every day is strictly limited and only a part of the protected area is accessible. The use of baits to attract the animals for tourists is forbidden.
Encounters with wild animals are of course not guaranteed, and visitors have to take that into account.
The core area of Tiger Reserves is closed to the public during mating season (end of June to October) to avoid disturbing the animals during such a delicate time.
Of course, problems may arise especially in the most popular Tiger Reserves that attract every year a huge number of tourists. The economy that evolves around wildlife, and especially around tigers, is a very lucrative business. I always advise to employ the services of professionals who advocate a sustainable form of tourism, who care about wildlife and nature ans don’t only see them as a tool to exploit.
6 . Can you pet a wild tiger in a Tiger Reserve ?
Absolutely not. People are not allowed to interact with wild animals in any way apart from observing them from a respectful distance. Wild nature, as per its definition, should be untouched and free from human influence as much as possible.
Also, why would anyone want to touch a wild tiger ? I get it, they look fluffy enough but … have you noticed the size of their paws and teeth ?!
Royal Bengal Tiger inhaling scents via the Flehmen response in Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve, India
As unbelievable as it may seem, this question arises often. This is because of pictures circulating on the internet of tourists posing with tigers and other wild animals. These pictures are taken in various locations, mostly in Asia. The most infamous example has been the Tiger Temple in Thailand.
It is really important to understand that such places are only exploiting animals for business purposes. No matter how good their discourse may seem, there is never any idea of conservation involved.
Tiger cubs are prematurely separated from their mothers to be hand-raised and therefore get used to the presence and contact of humans. Adult tigers are often drugged, their natural instinct and personality broken by years of cruel training.
They are forced to live in cages and are often inbred to produce more exploitable cubs. What is even worse, these facilities often hide a link to illegal farming and wildlife trafficking.
These breeding and petting facilities are harming conservation efforts to save the species in the wild by giving a completely false idea of the behaviour of these animals.
Tigers, solitary animals with a range of at least 10km in the wild, are put through immense suffering when forced into unnatural situations. Naturally shy and elusive, they live under constant stress.
Please, always say no to these kind of attractions.
7. Do tigers live in large groups like lions ?
Tigers are territorial, solitary and elusive animals. Unlike lions, they spend most of their lives alone, patrolling their vast home range within which they satisfy their needs and those of their cubs.
Territory size mainly depends on the availability of prey, on the geographic area and the sex of the individual. Male tigers have larger territories, often encroaching on one or several females’ ones.
Once they reach adulthood, female tigers establish their territory close to their mother’s. Males, however, leave their mother at a younger age and set out further.
Tigers are always aware of the presence of other individuals thanks to a variety of markings. That’s how they communicate and how they manage to maintain a social structure.
8. Do tigers roar all the time ?
Tigers are incredibly silent animals, especially given their size. Nevertheless, they do have a quite extensive range of vocalisations :
They roar, of course ! Hearing a wild tigers’s roar is an amazing experience. Very deep and low, this sound can be heard as far as 3 km away. Tigers can roar in different occasions. A mother may roar to call her cubs. That’s definitely the sound of a tiger who wants to be heard !
They moan – a friendly sound, used to communicate with other tigers in more intimate situations : mother and cubs or during mating time.
They snarl – a lower kind of growl, combined with the baring of teeth. It’s an intimidating sound, directed to another tiger or animal in a dangerous situation.
They hiss – Like any cat, they would bare their teeth and hiss as a warning. I’ve seen a wild tigress hissing to a Forest Department elephant in Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve when the pachyderm came too close.
They chuff – Because of their specific larynx conformation, tigers can’t purr. However, their most friendly sound is called a chuff. Tigers chuff to each other in social situations. A mother will chuff to her cubs to reassure them. Tigers of the same family will also chuff to each other as a greeting.
9 . We’ve talked about Bengal tigers. What about the other sub-species ? Can you go and see them ?
Tigers of the world, by Rohan Chakravarty, www.greenhumour.com
There are six subspecies of tigers in the world. Two of them (the South Chinese and the Indochinese) are virtually extinct in the wild.
60% of the world’s wild tigers belong to the Bengal subspecies. That leaves small, critically endangered, extremely elusive individuals of the other subspecies.
The Siberian, or Amur, counts less than 500 individuals. They roam the wilderness of the Russian Far East, a wide territory between Siberia and China, that is quite difficult to access given it size and harsh conditions.
Amur tigers are the most elusive big cats in the world. To spot one is a matter of commitment, dedication and extreme luck. Only a few lucky ones have been blessed by the sight of this impressive animal. Even if some tour operators are starting to organise tours in the Siberian wilderness, it’s virtually impossible to just fly to Russia for a couple of weeks and catch a glimpse of a tiger.
The Sumatran is the smallest of the tigers. These beautiful cats can be recognised by their wide black stripes, a dark orange fur and fluffy hair around their jaw. Only around 400 individuals are thought to be roaming the rainforest of the island of Sumatra in Indonesia.
Deforestation and poaching are the principal threat to this sub-species. More and more of their natural habitat is lost to palm oil plantations with a devastating effect on the local biodiversity. Remember : every time you are buying a product made with palm oil, you are contributing to the extinction of Sumatran tigers.
A wild Malayan tiger caught on camera trap © WWF-Malaysia / Mark Rayan
The Malayan : this subspecies of tiger can only be found on the Malay peninsula. Malayan tigers are almost as small as their Sumatran relatives. Unfortunately, the latest estimations were of less than 400 individuals left in the wild.
Poaching for illegal wildlife trade and habitat loss are the most significant threats these big cats are facing. Fragmentation of forest and deforestation for palm oil plantations are also to blame.
10 . We’ve talked about white tigers. Are there any black ones ?
As a matter of fact, yes. There is a very small population of “black” melanistic tigers in Similipal Tiger Reserve, in the state of Odisha, Central India.
These tigers’ black stripes are wider and thicker that those on the coat of an average Bengal tiger, hence giving the impression of a black coat.
What causes this phenomenon is not clear. Nevertheless, it has been argued that it may be the result of climatical factors, adaptation to a specific environment for camouflage purpose and a consequence of inbreeding.
Melanistic tigers caught on camera traps in Similipal Tiger Reserve, Odisha, India.