Photo: Dibyendu Ash
In 1794, poet William Blake sat down to describe exactly what a tiger is. The result is one of the most evocative works of lyrical art in the English language. The poem is not long, but it details a creature of nightmarish strength and awe-inspiring beauty. “What immortal hand or eye / Could frame thy fearful symmetry?” Blake asks.
Yet despite its subject, The Tyger is not truly about a tiger. It is a rumination on the conscience of God and the contents of his Creation.
When the stars threw down their spears
And water’d heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
The poem’s narrator questions what manner of divinity could fashion both the gentle lamb and the fierce tiger. Blake describes the Creator as a blacksmith, hammering out the tiger’s brain and claws over a burning furnace. These are powerful images that combine into a fearsome meditation on predators and Nature itself. It raises the question, what would Blake think of Man’s extermination of this divine monster?
Today is International Tiger Day, which was established at the Saint Petersburg Tiger Summit in 2010 to raise awareness for the species. Though fearsome, tigers are now on the verge of extinction. This iconic creature faces threats from several fronts, and we’ll get into a few of them below. You can help spread the word about Tigers and Tiger Day by sharing this article and visiting the official Tiger Day website.
5) Tigers Are the Largest Big Cats
Once you get past the house cats, the feline family only gets bigger and more dangerous. Tigers as a group are the largest of all the Asian cats, and the Siberian tiger is generally about 100 pounds heavier than the average adult male lion. Evidence suggests that Siberian tigers were historically bigger than their modern-day counterparts, which are now smaller than the Bengal subspecies. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), a tiger can consume up to 88 pounds of meat at one time.
4) They Are Incredible Hunters
When you’re the biggest meat-eater in the jungle, you get the biggest teeth. After its milk teeth fall out at six months, a tiger’s adult teeth never stop growing. This is why tigers can actually be aged by the size of their teeth! Their canines are built for gripping and tearing, and the muscles in their jaw are incredibly strong.
With its fearsome jaw and muscles, the tiger can take down animals that are more than twice its size. It will hunt wild pigs, water buffalo and antelopes, though it has also been observed attacking leopards, crocodiles, pythons and monkeys. Tigers are solitary hunters and extremely territorial, only venturing outside its borders to mate.
They are stealth hunters, not sprinters, so by the time their prey sees them, it’s usually too late. They will tackle an animal to the ground and then kill it with a bite to the neck.
They’re also great swimmers and will hunt their prey in water as well as on land.
3) White Tigers Are Not Albinos
In America, white Bengal tigers may be most closely associated with the Siegfried & Roy magic show in Las Vegas, but they appear in captivity around the world. However, these tigers, despite their rare white coats, are not albinos. They occur when two Bengal tigers with recessive genes mate. Some attest that all captive white tigers originate from a single progenitor, which over the years has led to unhealthy interbreeding and resultant deformities.
White tigers can occur in the wild, though no sightings have been recorded for more than 50 years.
2) Global Tiger Populations Have Been Reduced by 97 Percent!
It is estimated that the 10 tiger subspecies comprised a total tiger population of about 100,000 individuals before the 20th century. The intervening years have not been kind. Their natural habitats have been almost completely wiped out due to urban expansion and agriculture, which has put them at greater risk of human contact. As their natural prey has disappeared, tigers have been forced to hunt livestock, which increases the threat of tiger attacks on humans and the subsequent killing of wild tigers. Tigers also face death by poachers, sickness and weakness due to inbreeding and further risks from climate change.
As WWF explains:
“One of the world’s largest tiger populations is found in the Sundarbans—a large mangrove forest area shared by India and Bangladesh on the northern coast of the Indian Ocean. This area harbors Bengal tigers and protects coastal regions from storm surges and wind damage. However, rising sea levels that were 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—nearly a foot by 2070—could destroy nearly the entire Sundarbans tiger habitat.”
Elsewhere on the planet, other tiger populations are already disappearing. Earlier this year, conservationists declared the tiger “functionally extinct” in Cambodia. A few individuals remain, but there are no longer enough breeding populations left to sustain the species.
1) But Things Might Be Getting Better
Last year, India reported a 30 percent growth in its tiger population. This is big news, since the nation contains 70 percent of the world’s remaining tigers, but even better news because the resurgence is largely due to a concerted effort to save the species.
As Planet Experts reported in January 2015, “India’s success in rebuilding its tiger population has been driven by the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NCTA), which has created a tiger protection force, a program to care for orphaned tiger cubs and pursued anti-poaching measures. Along with government conservation efforts, this has allowed the Indian tiger population to rise from 1,706 in 2011 to 2,226 in 2014. The tigers were catalogued through the use of nearly 10,000 cameras positioned around a 3.78 square kilometer forest area.”
Globally, tiger numbers have also seen a slight rise. There are an estimated 3,900 tigers on Earth today, compared to 3,200 in 2010. This is good news, but Grace Ge Gabriel, the Asia Regional Director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, has urged caution before celebrating. The addition of nearly 700 new tigers is likely due to “better counting techniques” rather than improved conservation, she told Planet Experts.
Right now, tigers are being hunted “for every part of their body,” she added. “Bones for medicine, skins for decoration, claws and teeth for trinkets. What’s fueling poaching of wild tigers is the farming of tigers for commercial trade of their parts in China, Laos and Vietnam.”
Therefore, the fight to save the species is far from finished. Stronger efforts must be made to not only stop poaching but to level stronger punishments against poachers and wildlife traffickers.