Big Cats in the Wild

There are two recognized subspecies of tigers: the continental (Panthera tigris tigris) and the Sunda (Panthera tigris sondaica). Since 2017, IUCN has recognized 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.

Seeing a tiger in the wild is a dream for many. The tigress (Panthera tigris) known as 'Choti Madhu' by the locals. Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve, India.

A continental tiger (Panthera tigris tigris) at the Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve, India. © Narayanan Iyer (Naresh) / WWF-International

The largest of all the Asian big cats, tigers rely primarily on sight and sound rather than smell for hunting. They typically hunt alone and stalk prey. A tiger can consume more than 80 pounds of meat at one time. On average, tigers give birth to two to four cubs every two years. If all the cubs in one litter die, a second litter may be produced within five months.

Tigers generally gain independence at around two years of age and attain sexual maturity at age three or four for females and four or five years for males. Unfortunately, juvenile mortality is high—about half of all cubs do not survive more than two years. Tigers have been known to reach up to 20 years of age in the wild.

Males of the larger subspecies, the continental tiger, may weigh up to 660 pounds. For males of the smaller subspecies—the Sunda tiger—the upper range is at around 310 pounds. Within both subspecies, males are heavier than females.

Tigers are mostly solitary, apart from associations between mother and offspring. Individual tigers have a large territory, and the size is determined mostly by the availability of prey. Individuals mark their domain with urine, feces, rakes, scrapes, and vocalizing.

Tigers need room to roam. Protecting vast connected landscapes for these endangered top predators is key to their survival. Across their range, tigers face unrelenting pressures from poaching, retaliatory killings, and habitat loss. They are forced to compete for space with dense and often growing human populations.

Increasing Threats to Existence

Tigers face many issues that pose a threat to their existence in the wild. Tigers as a species are listed as endangered, meaning that they face a high risk of extinction in the wild, making it even more important for us to look after these big cats. Currently, five growing issues concern this species the most: habitat loss; human-wildlife conflict; effects of climate change; tiger “farms” and captive tigers; and poaching and illegal wildlife trade.

Tiger (Panthera tigris) lying with rear limbs in a pool of water, India.

A tiger in its natural habitat enjoying the cool water, India. © Vivek R. Sinha / WWF

Beginning with habitat loss, tigers have lost an estimated 95% of their historical range. Their habitat has been destroyed, degraded, and fragmented by human activities. The clearing of forests for agriculture and timber, as well as the building of road networks and other development activities, pose serious threats to tiger habitats. Tigers need wide swaths of habitat for their survival since they have large home ranges and are very territorial. Fewer tigers can survive in small, scattered islands of habitat, which leads to a higher risk of inbreeding and makes tigers more vulnerable to poaching as they venture beyond protected areas to establish their territories. This underscores the need to ensure habitat connectivity between the protected areas where tigers live.

Secondly, people and tigers increasingly compete for space. As forests shrink and prey becomes scarce, tigers are forced to leave protected areas in search of food and to establish territories. This takes them into human-dominated areas that lie between habitat fragments, where they can hunt domestic livestock that many local communities depend on for their livelihood. In retaliation, tigers are sometimes killed or captured. “Conflict” tigers can end up for sale in black markets. Local community dependence on forests for fuel wood, food, and timber heightens the risk of tiger attacks on people.

Climate change is impacting all species across the globe. One of the world’s largest, and most uniquely-adapted, tiger populations are found in the Sundarbans—a large mangrove forest area shared by India and Bangladesh on the coast of the Indian Ocean. It is also the only coastal mangrove tiger habitat in the world. These mangrove forests harbor a variety of species, including tigers, and protect coastal regions from storm surges and wind damage. However, rising sea levels caused by climate change threaten to wipe out these forests and the last remaining habitat of this tiger population. According to a WWF study, without mitigation efforts, projected sea-level rise—about a foot by 2070—could destroy nearly the entire Sundarbans tiger habitat.

Have you heard of tiger “farms” before? Tigers are being held in captivity against their will often for entertainment (like zoos), breeding, and illegal trade. Current estimates indicate that more than 8,000 tigers are being held in more than 200 centers in East and Southeast Asia, with roughly three-quarters of these tigers located in China. The current scale of commercial captive breeding efforts within these farms is a significant obstacle to the recovery and protection of wild tiger populations because they perpetuate the demand for tiger products, serve as a cover for illegal trade and undermine enforcement efforts. WWF is engaging with governments in countries with active tiger farms, and advocates ending breeding and phasing out the farms. WWF also advocates for improved regulation of the captive tiger population in the US. It is estimated that approximately 5,000 tigers reside in the US, and we must ensure that these animals are not exploited by, or contributing to, the illegal trade in tigers and their parts.

A tiger cub in captivity, Thailand. © Gordon Congdon

Last but certainly not least, poaching is the most immediate threat to wild tigers. Every part of the tiger—from whisker to tail—has been found in illegal wildlife trade markets. As a result of persistent demand, their bones, and other body parts are used for modern health tonics and folk remedies, and their skins are sought after as status symbols among some Asian cultures. There are often limited resources for guarding protected areas in the countries where tigers live. Even countries with strong enforcement of tiger protection laws continue to fight a never-ending battle against poaching, which is now often orchestrated by transnational crime syndicates that rake in significant profits from wildlife crime and undermine the security of local communities. The impact of the death of a single tiger at the hands of poachers reaches beyond one single loss. If a female tiger with cubs is killed, her cubs will most likely die without their mother, and the female’s potential for future breeding is lost. If a male is killed, his death can result in intense competition for his territory among surviving males in the population, leading to potential injury and death.

Wild Tigers Recover: The Tx2 Initiative

For the first time in a century, wild tiger populations are rising. Spurred by the global Tx2 effort, 13 countries that are home to tigers committed to doubling the imperiled cat’s population by 2022. Global monitoring recorded at least 3,890 wild tigers as of April 2016—a notable increase over 2010 when tigers numbered as few as 3,200. India is now home to more than half of these wild majestic cats thanks to improved management and protection. Bhutan, Nepal, and Russia’s landscape-scale protections are also proving successful at stabilizing populations.

WWF is supporting the Tx2 strategy on multiple fronts, from keeping tigers a political priority to ranger training, quashing the illegal wildlife trade, enhancing protected area management, and helping maintain landscape connectivity. While threats to tigers continue to persist, tiger victories are building as countries shift their focus beyond anti-poaching efforts to taking a holistic approach to connecting wildlife habitats. Nepal is the world’s first country to achieve zero tiger poaching for an entire 365-day period—a testament to persistent conservation efforts and to Chitwan National Park becoming the first protected area to receive Conservation Assured Tiger Standard accreditation, developed by tiger and protected area experts, including WWF.

Tiger siblings in India. © Surya Ramachandran

WWF is dedicated to achieving the ambitious global goal of 6,000+ wild tigers. To make that a reality, we need to protect, restore, and connect tiger habitats, end the illegal wildlife trade—including improving law enforcement and eliminating tiger farms—reduce demand for tiger products, and help tigers and local communities safely coexist. Protecting the places where tigers live, breed, and disperse is the backbone of the Tx2 recovery strategy. WWF and our partners are working with world leaders to ensure tigers remain a top priority. And with partners like TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, we’re tackling the illegal trade in tiger products.

Be A Part of the Change

Many of us have not had the incredible opportunity to see tigers in the wild. Having this special interaction provides us with the occasion to be a part of the change. By traveling with WWF and Natural Habitat Adventures and seeing tigers in their natural habitat, you will better understand how we can protect these big cats and educate those around you in doing so too. Consider joining an adventure to India with Natural Habitat Adventures to see this magnificent species firsthand.