Learn about these breathtaking animals – from the power and grace of the hunt to the threats facing their very survival.
By Wendy Perkins, Staff Writer SDZG;
Photos by Ken Bohn, SDZG Photographer
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With their confident swagger and intense, steady gaze, tigers catch and hold our attention.
Revered – and feared – by humans for thousands of years, tigers possess characteristics people desire: strength, skill, and singular focus. People have loved tigers for centuries, yet today the big cat’s numbers are frighteningly low. Have we pushed them to the brink of extinction? Yes. Can we read between the stripes to understand what we need to do to keep them on the planet? Yes!
Since ancient times, many Asian cultures have viewed tigers as the king of the jungle (sorry, lions, your regal realm is the savanna). In Chinese, the word for king –“wang” – is represented by a character made up of three horizontal lines. Look at a tiger’s head, and you’ll see three horizontal lines on its forehead. It “wears” the markings of a king.
The beauty of a tiger can be overwhelming at first; mesmerized by the whole, one’s heart beats a little faster.
Beauty in the Eyes
Seeing a tiger up close – or even just watching one from a safe distance for a long spell – gives our brain the chance to take it all in and begin to see what gives this cat its bona fides as a top predator.
Forward-facing eyes gie a tiger 3-D binocular vision for an accurate look before the leap when hunting. A tiger typically crouches and slowly moves toward a deer, boar, or other prey. Patience and persistence seem to be the name of the game for a stalking tiger. The closer it can get to its intended meal, the better. And then, the pounce! In an explosion of energy, the tiger springs toward tis prey. When (and if) contact is made, the brawny cat uses its sharp claws, broad paws and body weight to bring the animal down. The tiger quickly positions for the fatal bite to the neck. Small animals are bitten on the back of the neck, while larger prey, such as buffalo, are grabbed by the throat. What happens next determines if the tiger eats that day or not.
Pounce and Tackle
Strong hindquarters combined with brawny forelimbs and claws are key to the tiger’s pounce-and-tackle attack strategy.
Finding the Right Spot
Naturally, a tiger’s prey fights for its life.
During this struggle, the tiger must bite the right spot with enough force to sever the spinal cord in smaller prey or crush the trachea of larger animals. It takes nerves – and not just the kind we think of when we talk of bravery. Tigers have the largest canines of all the big cats, and those teeth are more than just sharp tools. Packed with sensitive nerves, the tiger can feel if its tooth is positioned in the space between neck vertebrae or on top of the bone. If it’s the latter, the cat must adjust and bite the right spot, all while trying to subdue struggling prey.
More Than Meets the Eye
The strength and power of a tiger is legendary.
An anecdote villagers often share is seeing a tiger take down a 1,500 pound gaur (a type of Asian wild cattle). A group of 15 men tried to move the dead animal, but couldn’t. After they gave up, the tiger returned and dragged the carcass into the forest. It’s this astonishing vigor that people have yearned for. Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) has long used tiger body parts in the belief that they can treat various illnesses, even though there is no scientifically proven medicinal value. Still, for some of the world’s population, tiger-bone wine is given as a supposed gift of vitality for the upcoming year. With populations of tigers plummeting everywhere they are still found, these practices are not sustainable. However, there are glimmers of hope.
Large pupils and a high concentration of rods (light-sensitive receptors) in a tiger's eyes give these cats an advantage for hunting at night.
In 1993, tiger bone was removed from the TCM pharmacopeia, and leaders in traditional medicine urged practitioners to find alternatives.
In 2003, Kew Gardens and Middlesex University, both in England, worked with TCM professionals to find plants that could be used in place of tiger bone. Using chemical analysis of both tiger bone and various flora, they were able to develop a list of alternatives from the Botanical Kingdom that contained similar organic elements.
Changing traditions, however, can take time – something tiger populations don’t have. Throughout their remaining range, tigers are protected by law, and there is a worldwide ban on the trade of tiger body parts, yet poaching remains a serious and persistent problem. Patrols apprehend and charge both poachers and purveyors of tigers throughout Asia, but as court cases stagnate, illegal hunting continues to chip away at the dwindling tiger populations.
Humans and Tigers
From India to China, Siberia to Sumatra, each tiger range country has created preserves for tigers and the wildlife that share their habitat.
However, as the human population in these areas grows and spreads to the edges of “tiger country,” a serious challenge arises. Can tigers and humans coexist? If so, what does that look like? One way to understand the situation is to look in our own backyard; how do we handle growing mountain lion populations and the spread of human habitation in the US? The key is education and understanding, as well as finding ways that humans and wildlife can share the space.
Cubs at Play
Rambunctious play builds cubs’ hunting skills and muscles.
The Impact of Awareness
There are tigers still found outside of protected areas.
In unprotected parts of their range, they are seriously affected by habitat loss and fragmentation due to logging and the creation of palm oil plantations. How can you help these cats hold onto habitat? Pay attention to what you buy: look for food products that contain only sustainable farmed palm oil (or none at all), and check for wood products labeled as sustainable harvested.
Community conservation programs and educational campaigns are two effective tools being used to keep tigers from being chased over the edge of extinction. Perhaps by channeling our own “tiger power” – carefully stalking what we buy and pouncing on opportunities to support conservation efforts – we can keep the kings of the forest prowling into the future.
Tiger on the Prowl
A top predator, a tiger on the prowl is the essence of cool, calm concentration.