The tiger hardly needs an introduction. The Bengal tiger (Panthera tigris tigris) is synonymous with India’s wildlife and is the flagship of the country’s wildlife conservation movement. This striped big cat, with its aura of power, beauty and regal charisma has inspired innumerable books, poems, art, traditions and cultures, and is even revered as ‘pattedar pani ka devta’ or the striped water God, because more than 600 rivers in India are fed or originate from the forests that the tigers inhabit. This is the major reason why protecting and conserving tigers and their natural habitat is so important. On the tiger’s forests depend food and water security of millions of Indians.
India is home to nearly seventy per cent of the world’s wild tigers. As per India’s 2019 national tiger estimation exercise, there are 2,967 tigers in India. Globally, less than 4,000 tigers remain in the wild today. These figures are a far cry from the historical size of populations that once existed within the species range. Up until the end of the 1800s, between 50,000 to 100,000 tigers roamed the Indian subcontinent. But, centuries of being subjected to hunting for sport and illegal wildlife trade decimated the tiger populations in India to near extinction. Historical records show how several members of Indian royalty and the colonial British officers managed to hunt hundreds of tigers single-handedly in the span of mere months and years. Between 1875 to 1925, it is thought, more than 80,000 tigers were killed, and this could possibly be a conservative estimate.
Tigers are the world’s largest big cats weighing up to 100-250 kg. (some males could weigh upto 300 kg.) and grow up to 5-6 ft. in length. So far, the tigers were split into eight subspecies, of which only six are known to exist in the wild, namely the Bengal tiger, Siberian or Amur tiger, Indochinese tiger, South China tiger, Sumatran tiger and Malayan tiger. But, in 2017, in a study, the International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN) proposed to recognise only two, overarching subspecies of tigers – continental tiger (Panthera tigris tigris) which includes the Bengal, Malayan, Indochinese and Amur; and the Sunda island tiger (Panthera tigris sondaica) that comprises tigers found only on Sumatra island.
Tigers have shown amazing powers of adaptation through the course of evolution. The range of habitats that the tigers thrive in is a testimony to that. From the hot tropical evergreen rain forests to grasslands, to subtropical and temperate forests of the north where temperatures plummet to below freezing, tigers have well adapted to a variety of climates and terrain.
India’s 51 tigers reserves are spread well across the country’s length and breadth. Some of these popular tiger destinations include the picturesquely rugged and dry Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan with its hot and dry climate and deciduous forests; the divinely beautiful expanse of the Corbett Tiger Reserve, in the northern state of Uttarakhand, with its Sal dominated forests situated in the foothills of the Himalayas; the Kaziranga National Park in the far eastern state of Assam, a World Heritage Site and a paradise composed of grasslands, marshlands and tropical evergreen to deciduous forests situated in the floodplains of the mighty Brahmaputra River; to the lush and undulating forests of Periyar Tiger Reserve which forms a part of the richly biodiverse Western Ghats, in the southern coastal state of Kerala.
Perhaps the most intriguing evidence of the tiger’s adaptive prowess can be traced to the population of Bengal tigers found in the trans boundary delta mangroves of the Sundarbans in east India and Bangladesh. Here in the saline environment where ever-changing tides dictate terms, tigers are uniquely amphibious in nature, navigating the mangroves’ swampy floors laden with spiny pneumatophores (aerial plant roots) and swimming in the crocodile and shark-infested coastal waters with equal ease. The Sundarbans’ ecosystem, culture and human lives have been starkly defined by this apex predator.
Every tiger sports a set of distinct stripes on its coat and no two tigers will ever carry the same pattern. These unique black stripes have greatly helped us to identify individual tigers making it much easier to discern, track, monitor and count tiger individuals as compared to other cat species.