Did you know tiger stripes are just like human fingerprints? No two tigers have the exact same stripes, even if the tigers are the same species.
These unique tiger stripes are actually helpful to conservation biologists when studying these big cats. Being able to identify how specific tigers live in the wild makes them easier to track and conserve. But it hasn't been easy.
Are Tigers Endangered?
You're probably wondering: Are tigers endangered? Over 100 years ago, about 100,000 wild tigers lived in Asia. Today, there are less than 3,900 tigers.
While there are nine tiger subspecies, as of 2022, only six of these subspecies remain. Three species—Javian, Bali, and Caspian—have gone extinct, with the remaining six species endangered. And not only are tigers endangered, but their population is steadily decreasing.
Most of us have seen tigers at the zoo. They're powerful, strong, and intelligent—so much so that it can be hard to imagine how these huge cats could ever be run out of their lands. So why are tigers endangered?
Why Are Tigers Endangered?
1. Tigers Are Slow to Reproduce
Tiger cubs are a rare occurrence. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), tigers have a small litter: between two to four cubs once every two years. And the adolescent tiger mortality is high—about half of all tiger cubs don't survive more than two years.
Tigers also aren't built to reproduce as fast as other mammals. Even in safe conditions, tigers can struggle to reproduce. A 2019 study shows tigers in India release stress hormones, which could make it more difficult for females to reproduce. Tigers in areas with a higher human population density can also release more stress hormones and have a harder time reproducing.
2. Illegal Poaching
Tigers are only present in 13 countries, all in Asia. For centuries, tigers were thought to have mystical healing properties. Up until the 1990s, this was the main cause of tiger poaching.
Nearly every part of the tiger was supposedly a cure for some kind of ailment: eyeballs cured epilepsy, fat fixed hemorrhoids, and the teeth cured asthma. However, as our understanding of science and medicine improved, nearly all countries outlawed hunting tigers for medicine, debunking the myths.
Now, tigers are primarily poached for their stripes. Tigers are often seen as exotic and beautiful animals, and today, tiger fur represents wealth and status. So the illegal wildlife trade is a major contributor to the endangerment of tigers.
A report published by the Environmental Investigation Industry says a single tiger skin could sell for up to $10,000. Hunting these animals when they're endangered, unfortunately, means that their skin is worth even more money.
3. U.S. Tigers Aren't Always Part of Conservation Efforts
If you watched Tiger King on Netflix, you might remember a narrator's voice saying there are more tigers in the U.S. in people's backyards than there are in the wild. And while that may seem untrue, it's not.
According to WWF, there are around 5,000 "backyard tigers," or captive tigers, all over the United States, meaning there are thousands of tigers living in people's yards, tourist attractions, or breeding facilities.
But it's important to remember that tigers aren't the same as the stray kittens that may roam your neighborhood: They're wild animals living thousands of miles away from their natural food sources and habitats. And when wild animals aren't in proper conservation sites with trained professionals, they can get mistreated, either accidentally or on purpose.
In the U.S., the regulations for owning exotic animals vary state by state. However, there are no federal regulations in regard to owning exotic animals like tigers. And the information surrounding U.S. tigers is scarce. We don't know exactly how many tigers are in the country, where they came from, if they're being treated properly, or if they've been illegally brought overseas.
And because U.S. tigers are often kept as pets or tourist attractions, there's no way to say if these animals could be reintroduced back into the wild—which is what conservation efforts are meant to do.
4. Habitat Loss and Climate Change
Global warming and climate change affect multiple sectors of our lives. Not only do they cause changes in weather patterns, but they also impact animal habitats and ecosystems. And because of this, animals need to adapt to change. However, in some cases, animals can't keep up.
According to the Smithsonian National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute, only 7% of original tiger habitats remain. This is partially due to habitat degradation from climate change, but also because humans are now living in territories where tigers exclusively used to live. Though tigers are the biggest cats on the planet and are incredibly strong, these animals are just as vulnerable to climate change and habitat loss as the rest of us.
When tigers have to travel farther to maintain their territory, they risk getting captured by poachers or running into unsuspecting humans. Or worse, these animals struggle to adapt to the new, harsher weather conditions, and pass away.
What You Can Do to Help
1. Sponsor a Virtual Adoption
Virtual adoptions make for a great gift—and they're for a great cause, too! WWF provides virtual adoptions for several animals, including tigers. Your money helps support animal conservation efforts, and you get a certificate acknowledging your donation.
The International Tiger Project is another non-profit that lets you pick an Indonesian tiger to sponsor. You'll even get regular email updates on how your tiger is doing.
2. Get Involved in Local Conservation Efforts
Accredited conservation sites are different than backyard zoos, tourist attractions, or private breeding facilities. Check online to see if your local zoo is a non-profit or is a registered conservation site.
Conservation sites, like the National Tiger Sanctuary in Missouri, focus on rescue, rehabilitation, and education rather than entertainment.
3. Email Representatives about Protecting Endangered Animals
Four states still don't have regulations against private ownership of exotic animals. If you're passionate about keeping animals protected in your state, email your congressperson.
A tiger was found roaming a Texas suburb last winter, and after public pressure, the state is now putting in regulations against private ownership. Remember: Our congress members represent us, and your voice matters!