The Last Wild Tigers

Courtesy of Audubon

The Last Wild Tigers

An in-depth report from the scattered remaining strongholds of these beleaguered—and magnificent—creatures.

By Peter Matthiessen
Published: 06/25/2014

At the turn of this century, by general estimate, 100,000 tigers shambled over a vast range of Asia extending from southern India to the Siberian taiga and from the equatorial tropics of Java and Bali to the Transcaucasus and eastern Turkey. By 1950 one authority was already predicting that "the species is now on its way to extinction"; three years from now, when the present century ends, perhaps no more than 2,500 scattered individuals of Panthera tigris will still wander a few isolated regions of their former range.

A Wildlife Conservation Society report in November 1995 proposed a total of "less than 5,000" wild tigers, and most tiger biologists and conservationists I have spoken with would set the number even lower--possibly as low as 3,000. Certainly one cannot accept the official figures of Asia's "tiger-range states," which for political reasons still claim ghostly tigers in battered landscapes where no viable population could persist.

The disappearance of this creature represents a great loss to our earth, for the resplendent tiger rivals the African elephant and the blue whale as the most majestic and emblematic creature in the history of human imagination. Like most children, I was fascinated by the great flaming cats of zoo and circus and the striped exotic beasts of Oriental art--and also, of course, by a tiger tale called Little Black Sambo, which in its title and illustrations encouraged whole generations in the mistaken notion that tigers dwelled in Africa with lions. Then came Kipling's The Jungle Book, with its mysterious great cats, Bagh and Bagheera, and Jim Corbett's enthralling tales of tiger hunting, related in such books as Man-Eaters of Kumaon. Finally, in the late 1960s, I happened upon an obscure masterpiece called Dersu the Trapper, by the Russian Army officer and explorer V.K. Arseniev--the first account I had ever read of the Amur, or Siberian tiger.

Since reading Dersu and envisioning this great carnivore moving along an icebound coast on the blue Sea of Japan, I had always longed to see a tiger in the wild, and in 1992 I made my first visits to tiger reserves in India and the Russian Far East. I returned to both countries in 1996, and just over a year ago, on a bright, cold January day, I had a sighting of an Amur tiger bounding across the deep snow of a coastal valley in the Sikhote-Alin Mountains, deep in Dersu's country.

The Indian, or "Royal Bengal," tiger of Kipling and Corbett is but one of the eight geographic races, or subspecies, of this mighty animal, of which three--the Caspian, Balinese, and Javan races--have already vanished forever in our lifetimes. Of the five that remain--the Amur (or Siberian), Sumatran, Indochinese, South China, and Indian-- most reports disagree on their status and distribution (a sign of how much remains unknown about this secretive, nocturnal animal even as it vanishes from the earth). Yet most biologists would agree that three and perhaps four of these subspecies are unlikely to survive the first years of the new century. The Amur, South China, and Sumatran tigers, according to most recent estimates, total fewer than 1,000 animals among them; and the Indochinese population, to judge from recent surveys in Thailand, seems unlikely to amount to more than a few hundred animals.

In the opinion of most authorities, the Indian tiger, Panthera tigris tigris, provides the main hope for any future for the species. This spectacular flame-colored race was formerly found throughout most of the Indian subcontinent, as well as in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, and western Burma. In India tigers have been killed for sport for many centuries, but their numbers were not seriously reduced until the advent of firearms, which, in combination with trained elephants, made tiger hunting one of the least sporting diversions ever devised. Even as late as 1965, about 400 tigers were slaughtered every year in India alone; meanwhile, tiger habitat was declining almost everywhere due to swelling human pressures. In 1951 Jim Corbett warned that tiger numbers had fallen to approximately 2,000 animals, and by the late 1960s some researchers were estimating that no more than 600 wild tigers survived in all of India. In 1972 the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, along with the World Wildlife Fund, initiated Operation Tiger, which was designed to raise funds and public support for emergency government conservation programs in Asia's tiger-range states.

The same year, Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi sponsored a worthy initiative called Project Tiger, setting aside nine tiger reserves. (There are now 23.) In its first two decades Project Tiger raised $30 million--a very large sum for conservation, though much less significant when one considers that in the same period 10 human beings were born in India for every dollar spent. The initiative was mainly funded by international nongovernmental organizations, which put pressure on India's bureaucracy to produce immediate results. They got them, too, at least on paper, because from the start the eager bureaucrats--from the smallest park official to the ministers in New Delhi--reported nothing but the best possible news. By the early 1980s, in fact, there seemed reason to believe that the tiger population had more than doubled, to a total of 4,300 animals, and that Project Tiger was one of the great successes in the history of wildlife conservation.

Of all the tiger reserves, the most celebrated was Ranthambore, in Rajasthan, a private province of the maharajas of Jaipur since the 18th century. After independence, in 1947, the maharaja had continued to use Ranthambore as a hunting preserve, filling the blinds with such august sportsmen as Prince Philip of England. (" 'Bagh! Bagh! Tiger! Tiger!,' cried the beaters, moving the tiger toward the prince," is the wry description of Fateh Singh Rahore, who has worked at Ranthambore most of his life.) But in 1970, with most of the tigers shot out, these executions were finally stopped, and the following year Fateh Singh was made Ranthambore's head warden. Under the banner of Project Tiger, local villagers were discouraged from poisoning or shooting tigers and "encouraged" to move out of the park, and by 1979 the 12 villages in the center of the park had been relocated. Two years later Fateh Singh was badly beaten by local people for strictly enforcing his own edicts. Nevertheless, the prey species had come back in numbers, well protected and unafraid, and were the most readily observed and photographed in all of India.

That year, the impolitic Fateh Singh was removed from his post for overzealous prosecution of his duties. In the same period, the beginning of a fierce seven-year drought encouraged the villagers around the park to drive more herd animals inside its boundaries, resulting in severe habitat destruction, which was duly blamed for a sudden and rapid decline among the tigers. The loss of cover worsened through the early '90s, as drought and overgrazing continued, and suddenly the first signs were appearing that the Ranthambore tigers were more threatened than ever before.

In the winter of 1992, as a leader of ornithological safari to northwestern India, I stopped for three days at Ranthambore, a small, beautiful park where lotus lakes and ruins, in an Arcadian setting of overgrown temples and pavilions, are laid out beneath an immense and ancient for that rises from cliff walls high above the forests. Sambar and spotted deer, wild hog and gazelle were everywhere, as if they, too, awaited the scarce tigers; and we marveled at the fruit bats and large crocodiles and exotic birds--the fish owls and painted snipes and crested serpent eagles and lovely rose-ringed, blossom-headed, and Alexandrine parakeets.

Surely this was the realm that inspired the Indian tiger biologist Ullas Karanth to reflect, "When you see a tiger, it is always like a dream." Every day in the cold dawn we passed through the dark stone portals to scour the dirt roads and lake edges and the dry, grassy uplands. Here and there we found some fresh scrapes and pugmarks, but we saw no tiger. While at Ranthambore, we paid a call on Fateh Singh, who affects a kind of princely strut to go with his white mustache, safari clothes, and Stetson hat. He gave us tea at his farm at the edge of the reserve, where tigers and leopards used to pad along beneath his terrace. Poaching had increased so cruelly in the years since his retirement that only the birds now visited his pools. No, Fateh Singh sighed, the chances of seeing a Ranthambore tiger now were small.

A few months later, in the spring of 1992, a large tiger-poaching operation was broken wide open at the nearby town of Sawai Madhopur. Most of the killing had been done by hunters of the Moghiyba tribe, using modern weapons--a man named Gopal Moghiya claimed 12 joined in, sprinkling poison on fresh kills that tigers would return to, and selling off the skins and body parts, which were smuggled to Delhi's Sadar Bazaar district for processing. The skins, which might bring $15,000 each, went mostly to Arab countries, while the bones and other parts, ground to powder for use in traditional medicines, went to China, Taiwan, and the Koreas. The genitalia went to rich, flagging Asians: A tiger penis brought $1,700 in Taiwan, where a single bowl of penis soup cost $300. A single tiger, for which the local poacher might be paid $100, may produce 11 kilograms (about 24 pounds) of powdered bone, which at $500 per gram might bring as much as $5.5 million.

In the great furor that ensued, the bureaucrats of Project Tiger confessed that their tiger figures had been inflated to please the Delhi politicians. An honest census was demanded, and when the smoke cleared, Ranthambore's proud 45 tigers had been boiled down to an optimistic 28. Despite the presence of 60 forest guards, the missing tigers had been poached with impunity and had disappeared almost unnoticed. Today, according to Fateh Singh's disciple Valmik Thapar, 15 tigers may survive at Ranthambore, including perhaps 7 or 8 that "do not show themselves."

In the few years of intensified poaching that began in 1987, perhaps one-third of India's tigers had been killed--almost as many as were said to remain in the whole country at the time Project Tiger began. India still claims 3,750 tiger and is formally committed to protecting them. But few accept that rosy figure or have faith in the commitment--not in the present rancid atmosphere of governmental bribery and corruption. To this day, except in a very few reserves in India and Nepal, the Indian tiger is hunted throughout its remaining range. Though still granted about 60 percent of the wild population of the species, the Indian race probably numbers no more than 1,500 animals--less than half the Indian government's official face-saving figure.

One of the last great redoubts of the Indian tiger lies in the state of Madhya Pradesh, in the central highlands. In 1963, when U.S. biologist George Schaller began a pioneering study of Indian ungulates, he chose the great Kanha plateau as his study area, not only because it was huge and remote but because "there were more tigers at Kanha than in any other area" he visited. He reached this conclusion even though, by his own estimate, Kanha's entire tiger population in that period was approximately 11 animals.

Kanha was one of the first reserves established under Project Tiger--in fact, Bob Wright, noted entrepreneur of the colonial-era Tollygunge Club of Calcutta, who turned up at Kipling Camp, near Kanha, during my visit there in February 1996, thought Kanha might have been the very first one chosen. The camp is owned by his wife, Anne, who assisted Mrs. Gandhi in founding Project Tiger and was a founder of World Wildlife India. Their daughter, Belinda, has since become the most outspoken tiger activist in India.

The Kanha reserve, designated a national park in 1976, contains 940 square kilometers--not counting a buffer zone of 1,005 square kilometers in which human activity is restricted--and is one of the largest of India's parks, though little visited by foreigners. In eight splendid days at Kanha, I saw wild dog and leopard and the mighty gaur, sambar,chital, barking deer, barasingha, blackbuck antelope, and wild boar. The only large animal I did not see was Panthera tigris tigris.

Belinda Wright was kind enough to put me up in Delhi on my return from Kanha, and for three days we talked about little except tigers, working around discreet phone calls from informers in regard to her investigative work for the Wildlife Protection Society of India, of which she is executive director. One informer, a jeweler, had just been offered two poached tiger skins and might cooperate in setting up a sting; another would come by later in the morning, to avoid the risk of a tapped phone. Because her undercover work is dangerous, Belinda lives in a small house out of the city, and the garden enclosure is steel-fenced, with heavy locks and two permanent guards.

On my first evening in Delhi, we went to dinner with a few friends at the house of Valmik Thapar, who had worked with Fateh Singh at Ranthambore. Among those present was Bittu Sahgal, editor of the wildlife magazine Sanctuary ASIA. I asked my host how much he and Fateh Singh had known about the extent of the poaching at Ranthambore when I visited four years earlier, and Thapar said that Fateh Singh already suspected the worst. "I discounted it," confessed Thapar, a large, bearded man of intense, brooding demeanor. "I simply did not wish to believe what was happening to our tigers." Not until the spring of 1992, when the scandal broke, and it became clear that Ranthambore's tigers had been reduced almost by half, could he bring himself to accept what had already happened.

In 1994, when Wright uncovered the first evidence of extensive tiger poaching at the Kanha reserve, nobody--including her friends Thapar and Sahgal--wished to believe her. Thapar nodded ruefully. Ranthambore was different, he said--not only much smaller than the huge and remote Kanha but pressed on all sides by hungry humanity and far closer to the animal-parts trade around Delhi. But eventually Thapar and other wildlife people in India had to accept the fact that poaching was epidemic, not only at Kanha but also throughout most if not all of the new reserves.

In the face of government indifference, Thapar and Sahgal, with Wright tiger biologist Ullas Karanth, founded the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI), whose foremost mission was and is the protection of tigers from the poachers. In 1996 this small and intense group was joined by Ashok Kumar of the World Wildlife Fund International's TRAFFIC network, which concerns itself with the animal-parts trade the world over. Mostly because of Belinda Wright's operations, 82 people have been taken to court for wildlife violations during the past two years. Yet every last one of them has been set free. Though Wright is not bitter, as are Thapar and Sahgal, she wonders if India has the will to save its own wildlife, observing that the corruption in high government has further weakened the faint resolve that Project Tiger used to inspire in the politicians.

Despite continuous and spirited disagreement, the dedicated people of the WPSI are very closely bonded in their cause. They cannot know what effect they will have on India's bureaucracy, yet they think they are seeing some small signs of progress. In any case, as Wright and Thapar remarked separately, they are dedicated to a lifelong fight to save the tiger. After all, as Bittu Sahgal says, "The tiger is the very soul of India."

Throughout the tiger's former and present range, the forces acting to exterminate it are consistent, though they might be ranked in different order from country to country: ever-increasing human settlement; destruction of habitat by lumbering, mining, agriculture, fires, war, dams, and reservoirs; general access to modern weapons, with increased hunting and poaching of both the tiger and its prey animals; increased confrontation between tigers and humans or livestock; genetic drift cause by inbreeding due to isolated and diminished populations.

The South China tiger, Panthera tigris amoyensis, was formerly abundant in South China's temperate upland forests, with a population estimated by Chinese authorities at 4,000 in the late 1940s. By the early 1950s extensive forest clearing for agriculture had destroyed much habitat, and "pelt harvest" of the tiger for the fur trade increased. In 1959, under Mao Tse-tung, eradication campaigns against these "pests" were encouraged by government bounties, resulting in uncontrolled hunting, not only for the skin but for blood, bones, organs, and medicines. By the early 1960s the South China tiger had declined to an estimated 1,000 animals; a decade later it was listed as endangered. Today its wide range has been reduced to three isolated areas in south-central China, where small and scattered populations are said to persist along the mountainous borders between provinces. Two of these regions include parts of Jiangxi Province, where in the winter of 1993, on a crane expedition, I made a five-hour journey overland from the capital, Nanchang, to Poyang Lake, near the Yangtze River, and also two flights over the region at low altitude and in clear weather, which provided a good look at this rough, mountainous region. One can only hope that Jiangxi is not typical of the last tiger habitat in China, for it appeared fatally battered and denuded.

According to official Chinese estimates, more than 150 amoyensis survive. But some Western authorities now fear that as few as 20 to 30 are left, and even this low figure maybe optimistic, since no one knows of any recent sightings. Even if not already extinct, the South China race seems destined to become the fourth to vanish in our lifetime.

The tiger subspecies to the south of amoyensis (and the one most recently recognized by scientists as a distinct form) is the Indochinese tiger, Panthera tigris corbetti. Smaller and darker than the South China race, it ranges widely from eastern Burma, now known as Myanmar, through Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Malaysia. Present estimates of the Indochinese tiger's population range from 600 to 900; but little is known about its distribution, and recent surveys of Indochina's vast, empty forests by Wildlife Conservation Society biologists George Schaller and Alan Rabinowitz are not encouraging. According to Schaller, local people have set snares "from the mountaintop all the way down into the valley," and Rabinowitz agrees that "the people are literally wiping out everything--sambar, barking deer, even young elephants. The forests look good, but there are no tigers because there is nothing for them to eat. In these areas it is not the tiger that is being killed directly but the prey."

Much the same can probably be said of the rest of Indochina. In Myanmar, scarcely 1 percent of the country is protected, although 45 percent remains forested; and even where guerilla warfare has not prevented the few forest guards from entering the forests, they are not permitted to arrest poachers. In the other countries, large areas have been set aside as reserves and parks, but none of these nations try to control the use of firearms. The ill-paid guards are imperiled by well-armed poachers and even by local people, who perceive them as enemies who interfere with their traditional harvest in the forest. According to Rabinowitz, "no more than an estimated two hundred and fifty adult tigers are in danger of further decline." The same--or worse--can probably be said of the populations elsewhere in corbetti's range.

Little is known of the tiger race found less than 50 miles across the Malacca Straits in Sumatra, the last sanctuary of tigers in Indonesia. Sumatra is the world's sixth-largest island, more than 1,000 miles long, though far less populous than nearby Java and Bali. Poor agricultural soils put off the destruction of its forests until after World War II. But in the 1960s the conversion of forestland was greatly expanded by timber concessions, rubber and palm-oil plantations, and oil fields, and the habitat loss was compounded by hunting and trapping. Today the Sumatran tiger, Panthera tigris sumatrae, is largely confined to the southwestern mountains and remote northern regions, which include the largest and best of the reserves known as Gunung Leuser, a complex of about 7,927 square kilometers where 20 to 100 tigers are said to persist. (The numbers spread is an indication of how little is actually known about the sumatrae.)

At a conservation workshop in 1992, some 35 Indonesian forestry and conservation officials assigned to Sumatran parks and protected areas--the majority of the tiger professionals in Sumatra--were asked how many had ever laid eyes on a wild tiger. Four raised their hands. How many had seen tiger tracks? Perhaps half of them. How many with raised hands had seen tracks 10 or more times? Half of the hands went down. (Since tigers commonly use roads and trails, leaving big pugmarks, this informal poll was even more ominous than it may appear.)

A recent report by the Wildlife Conservation Society claimed that about 650 Sumatran tigers may survive, and one hopes, without much confidence, that this is true. Hundreds of stuffed specimens adorn Sumatran government offices and private homes, in addition to the hundreds shipped abroad. Between 1975 and 1992 South Korea alone imported 3,720 kilograms of dried tiger bone from Indonesia (in effect, Sumatra, since the tiger was already extinct in Java and Bali), or somewhere between 338 and 620 tigers over an 18-year period; between 1991 and 1993 South Korea imported 475 kilograms of bone, or about 20 tigers annually. In Singapore a well-tanned Sumatran tiger skin brings about $2,000; a tiger penis fetches $100. Small wonder, then, that according to one recent report, "the Sumatran form is close to extinction in the wild."

In 1936, when the Sikhote-Alin International Biosphere Reserve was established, on the Siberian coast north of Vladivostok, perhaps 50 Amur tigers were left in the wild-- too few, some said, to provide the genetic variation critical to the long-term survival of the race. Yet everywhere throughout its range, Panthera tigris has shown itself to be a marvelously resourceful and adaptable animal, and during World War II, with most of the hunters off shooting at other human beings, it made a small recovery in numbers. By the mid-1980s the wild population was thought to approach 450 animals, including 250 breeding adults--an exciting recovery that justified hope for reestablishing a viable population, assuming the tigers had avoided long-term damage from inbreeding. But with the implosion of the Soviet Union, the Amur country was laid wide open to the international poaching that was destroying the last tigers everywhere. Within a few years more than a third had been destroyed, and once again the Amur, or Siberian, tiger, Panthera tigris altaica, was in serious danger of extinction. In this emergency, a group of Russian researchers and U.S. wildlife biologists founded the Siberian Tiger Project, with headquarters in Terney, a fishing port north of Vladivostok.

In June 1992, not long after the project's fieldwork had begun, I joined the researchers at Terney and accompanied them on treks into the forest. In the beautiful early summer taiga, I saw fresh tiger sign--pugmarks and scent posts and scat--and joined in the reconnaissance of the territory of a tigress that had been captured, radio-collared, and released two days before. Using telemetry, we approached the stream where she lay in hiding; as we drew near, the tigress rose and began moving, changing her radio signal to a rapid beep, and my heart with it, for this was my first experience with a tiger in the field. According to Maurice Hornocker, an eminent authority on the great cats and a codirector of the project, her sharp eyes were probably watching us through those silent trees, and certainly she could hear us. Knowing she was intent upon our presence, the striped fur of her harlequin mask rising and falling with her fetid, meaty breath as she stared and listened, was exhilarating, to say the very least.

In January 1996 I returned to the Russian Far East by way of Vladivostok, where I was met by Siberian Tiger Project biologists Howard Quigley and Dale Miquelle. The next day we flew up the coast road through what is now the Sikhote-Alin reserve, in the heart of tiger country. During the next fortnight, taking part in air monitoring and snowtracking of the animals that had been captured, radio-collared, and released since my first visit, four years before, gave me a chance to compare the prospects of altaica with those of the other tiger races.

The Amur tiger, generally regarded as the largest of the world's great cats, once ranged widely in Siberia, from Lake Baikal east to Korea. Today it is almost entirely confined to the Russian Far East, in the Sikhote-Alin Mountains. Officially, it is till reported to exist in contiguous North Korea and northeastern China, but the biologists and researchers of the Siberian Tiger Project mostly dismiss these remnant animals as border wanderers.

The Sikhote-Alin, 600 miles north and south, with a very low human population, is the largest single region of potentially good habitat in all of Panthera tigris's modern range. If its large reserves can be linked by wooded corridors across the mined and timbered forestlands, and if its prey species can be protected from overhunting, the Sikhote-Alin might offer a better region except possibly the huge Ganges-Brahmaputra delta, called the Sunderbans, which is generally inhospitable to humans. On the other hand, the population densities of the tiger's prey species, poached relentlessly since firearms became generally accessible a few years ago, are now so low that the carrying capacity for this region may have already been reached. Few authorities give the Amur tiger much chance of long-term survival into the next century, but having observed and listened to the Americans and Russians involved in the Siberian Tiger Project, and the local people, too, my own views are more optimistic. Low prey densities and small numbers notwithstanding--according to a 1996 census, about 330 adults and 101 subadults--this may well be the most stable tiger population left on earth.

The vanished tiger races, never studied, might have told us much about the phylogeny of tigers--the origin and evolution of the species. Tigers and lions both descend from a jaguarlike Panthera ancestor, but although the lion was widespread in western Asia and southern Europe as well as Africa, no tiger fossils have been found outside of Asia. Among the earliest were skulls and bones from the late Pliocene and the early Pleistocene, discovered in China and also in Java and on the north coast of Siberia. These Ice Age tigers were larger than the modern races, among which only the Amurapproaches in size.

In the Pleistocene the species was widely distributed, crossing land bridges to Japan, and the geographic region where the species originated is still debated. While some authorities now suggest a southern Asian origin, most adhere to a "northern hypothesis." According to that theory, the early tiger dispersed westward to the Caspian Sea and south into India and Southeast Asia more than a million years ago, when most of central Asia was covered in forest. When sea levels receded during the Pleistocene to expose the continental shelf that linked the Malayan peninsula with the East Indies, the tiger reached Sumatra, Java, and Bali. At some unknown time it vanished from Japan, and in later ages, for want of water, it withdrew from the arid Himalayan rain shadow of Tibet and Central Asia. (Though the tiger can adapt to cold, it cannot survive in arid country.) But all around this great desert ellipse, its range appears to have been almost continuous. As the earth warmed after the Pleistocene, the dispersing tigers spread through Asia, losing their long-haired pelage and heavy, tufted paws. Until regional populations were cut off from one another by climatic changes, all Asian tigers were essentially the same animal; yet the only one that remained comparable in size to the Amur race was the Indian tiger, which needed to deal with the large prey animals of the subcontinent. In the tropics, with mostly smaller prey, the cumbersome size of the northern tiger proved nonadaptive The South China, Indochinese, and Caspian races became smaller than the Amur and the Indian, and the three island races of the equatorial tropics were smaller still.

Tiger dimensions adapt readily to prey size, which is generally (though not invariably) smaller in island fauna. The extinct Japanese tiger of the Pleistocene was approximately the same size as the Balinese race, which seems to have been the smallest of modern tigers. According to tiger authority John Seidensticker, curator of mammals at the National Zoo, in Washington, D.C., the original habitat of the island tigers of Indonesia appears to have been the great river swamps, where the tiger evolved as the largest predator in a chain of life whose essential members were deer and wild boar.

In modern times, Bali's rich and volcanic slopes encouraged an intensive wet-rice agriculture, but its tigers were found mostly in the high western forests. So far as is known, no Balinese tiger was ever captured, though eight were killed for museums in the 1930s. Collecting specimens from a small population hastened the extinction of the race, and the Bali Barat Game Reserve, created in western Bali in 1941, came too late to help it. In the 1960s and '70s, much plantation forest was cut down, by which time, in all likelihood, the Balinese tiger, Panthera tigris balica, was already gone. Seidensticker tells me that in July 1978 he spoke with a local man who claimed to have observed a tiger one month earlier as it drank from a spring at the base of a great ficus tree shading his temple; in 1979 a Bali newspaper printed reports that at least six tigers still survived in the Bali Barat reserve. I, too, was told that, on a journey there last winter en route from Siberia to India, and the legend seemed persuasive enough when I gazed at those mysterious, high, dark mountain forests in the distance. Pressed a little, however, the genial Balinese agreed that their tiger was gone.

Departing Bali en route to India, the aircraft passed along the northern coast of Java, a mysterious and striking dark massif of 20 or more volcanic cones. The once-abundant Javan tiger was bountied and killed throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, and not until the 1920s and '30s was a system of reserves established. The few captive animals reported in zoos and collections before World War II were dispersed during the war, and none survive. By 1945 the Javan tiger, Panthera tigris sondaica, was mostly gone from all but the most inaccessible regions of the island, as much of the monsoon forest was converted to teak plantations and rubber trees and coffee.

Java is one of the world's most populous places, aswarm with 120 million people, and this virulent population growth--with forest loss and intensive cultivation--made survival impossible for the tiger. By the mid-1960s, when civil unrest spread across the island, the Javan tiger survived in only three of the reserves; in the same period one of its main prey species, the rusa deer, was reduced severely by disease. By 1970 the last four or five animals were confined to a rugged area on the coast, known as Meru-Betiri, which was made a park in 1972. The last good sighting of sondaica was made in 1976, and it is presently assumed that the Javan race died out in the 1980s, despite the local legends to the contrary.

Not surprisingly, all three of the first races to go extinct--the Balinese, the Javan, and the Caspian--were located at the extremities of tiger range and were cut off from the main body of the species. Perhaps even before the advent of human beings, the Caspian tiger, Panthera tigris virgata, lived 1,000 miles or more from its westernmost kin, in Siberia, and was cut off from the Indian and South China populations by high mountains and deserts. The Caspian tiger is the exotic creature seen scowling and skulking in ancient Persian art--the rather small, dark race of the Transcaucasus and the shores of the great inland seas of western Asia. A specimen killed in the Transcaucasus in 1932 was the last one seen until 1964, when one or more were sighted near Lenkoran, on the southwest shore of the Caspian Sea near the Iranian border. In the early 1970s a U.S. researcher surveying the Caspian shore with camera traps found leopards but no evidence of tigers, and a survey of Iran's remote mountains between 1973 and 1976 had the same result. The Lenkoran tigers, it appears, were the last of this subspecies ever to be seen, and today the Caspian tiger is presumed extinct.

One day last April in Washington, D.C., John Seidensticker was kind enough to give Belinda Wright and me a close look at two of his Sumatran tigers in their cages beneath the exhibit pens at the National Zoo. Perhaps two and a half feet at the shoulder, this last representative of Indonesia's island tigers is little more than half the size of the Amur or Indian tigers, with a smaller head and shoulders relative to its weight. The ground color of the Sumatran tiger is comparatively darker, rather tawny (the Javan and Balinese forms were darker still), and its underside is a dirty, gray white, as opposed to the bright white of its northern kin. Its stripes are narrower and more closely spaced and may be spotted at the tips, and it is oddly big footed, like a toy tiger. The watchful male, slung out on his hard bench, had his head close to the bars. When I peered too closely, our intent visages scarcely a yard apart, the tiger closed his agate eyes and opened his jaws in a silent, yawning snarl. The face of sumatrae is relatively narrow, with a pronounced white ruff-- characteristics that might camouflage its bulk as it approaches, Seidensticker suggests, since the body does not extend outside the ruff when seen head on.

Seidensticker remains mildly skeptical of the current separation of the tiger into eight races, since the status of these subspecies is still argued--the Indochinese tiger, Panthera tigris corbetti, was only "created" three decades ago--and because, in more than one pair in the group, the alleged differences seem problematic at best. In his opinion, "viable population" might be a more useful designation than "geographic race," since--in a creature that seems equally adaptable to dry upland forest and tropical rainforest, monsoon mangrove habitat and Himalayan foothills, northern taiga and the reedbeds of Asia's inland seas--size, external appearance, and behavior tend to be more influenced by climate and ecology than by geographic range. Like most of the 36 species of cat, the tiger is exceptionally flexible, adapting to a range of habitats perhaps unmatched by any other large mammal except Homo sapiens.

Yet even if all necessary steps to protect the last wild tigers are undertaken, it may not be enough. As Seidensticker says, traditional conservation management techniques for tigers have failed or are failing, even where there has been increased protection. Effective restoration will require corrective and preventive management, to insure that mere benign neglect--as in Java and Bali, where the tiger went extinct despite a system of protected reserves--does not permit some fatal imbalance to occur before it can be properly understood.

Gazing into a nearby cage at a great white tiger, the last of a celebrated "albino line" from India, we fell silent for a while, considering that stunted future in which the mysteries of wild tigers will be gone and the only tigers left on earth will be these listless specimens cooped up in zoos. How excited I would have been, I thought, to have glimpsed one of those Persian tigers, scowling from the reeds near Lenkoran on the shore of the Caspian Sea.

This story originally appeared in the March-April 1997 issue.

 

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