Bengal or Indian Tiger

Although classified as endangered by IUCN the Bengal tiger, or Royal Bengal tiger (Panthera tigris tigris), national animal of both India and Bangladesh, is the most numerous subspecies of tiger compared to other subspecies. It is native to India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan. Presently, while it is facing the danger of becoming extinct throughout its range, India is still quite rich, as far as the numbers are concerned, with more than half of the world’s total population roaming within its boundaries. The latest census (2010) report has indicated both good and the bad news at the same time. Good news is the rise of 16% per cent in the cat count taking it to 1,706 since the last census undertaken in 2006 which put the number at 1,411. Bad news is the report has also highlighted the continuing threat to the animal, as the habitat across the country has gone down by about 20,000 sq km. These were mainly areas outside the protected forests.

Tiger Range

According to records, at the time of Independence in 1947 India had about 300,000 sq km of tiger habitat. When Project Tiger came into existence in 1973 about 14,000 sq km of prime breeding area was brought under it with the expectation that as the population increases it would occupy the neighbouring areas. Now the situation is such that the total tiger habitat available is less than 150,000 sq km of which about 40,000 sq km has been placed under Project Tiger.

Physical Characteristics

Its coat is a yellow to light orange, and the stripes range from dark brown to black; the belly is white, and the tail is white with black rings. The total body length, including the tail, of males is 270 to 310 cm (110 to 120 in), while that of females are 240 to 265 cm (94 to 104 in). The tail measures 85 to 110 cm (33 to 43 in), and the height at the shoulder is 90 to 110 cm (35 to 43 in). The average weight of males is 221.2 kg (488 lb), while that of females is 139.7 kg (308 lb).

Male Bengal tigers from the northern parts of Indian subcontinent are almost as large as Siberian tigers with a greatest length of skulls of 332 to 376 mm (13.1 to 14.8 in). In northern India and Nepal, males have an average weight of 235 kg (520 lb), and females 140 kg (310 lb). The roar of this subspecies can be heard for up to 3 km.

Record Holders

A male weighing 258.6 kg (570 lb) was shot in Northern India in 1938. In 1980 and 1984, scientists tagged two males, namely M105 and M026 in Nepal that weighed more than 270 kg (600 lb). Another specimen, again a male, with a 150 cm (59 in) of chest girth, head and body length of 221 cm (87 in) measured between pegs, shoulder height of 109 cm (43 in) and a tail of just 81 cm (32 in), perhaps bitten off by a rival male. This animal could not be weighed, but was calculated to weigh no less than 272 kg (600 lb). Finally, the Guinness Book of Records contains the details of the heaviest tiger known, a huge male hunted in 1967. It measured 322 cm (127 in) in total length between pegs (338 cm (133 in) over curves), and weighed 388.7 kg (857 lb). It was killed in northern India by David Hasinger and is on exhibition in the Mammals Hall of the Smithsonian Institution.

In the beginning of the 20th century, there were reports of big males measuring about 12 ft (3.7 m) in total length; however, there was no scientific corroboration in the field. It is probable that the measurement was taken over the curves of the body.

Oldest captive tiger dies

Guddu, the oldest surviving tiger in a captive environment, died at the Kanpur (Uttar Pradesh, India) zoo in the night of 15 January 2014 due to age related ailments. According to zoo records, the Royal Bengal tiger was 26 years and six months old. Guddu’s death comes as a setback to the zoo administration, which had approached the Guinness World Records for the tiger’s entry as the oldest surviving big cat in the world. Confirming the death, Kanpur zoo director K. Thomas said Guddu was not eating since 9th January and was put on supplements and liquid diet.

Behaviour and ecology

Tigers neither live in prides, as lions do, nor do they live as family units because the male plays no part in raising the offspring. Males fiercely defend their territory. Females are less territorial: occasionally a female may share her territory with other females. Male’s territory is larger than that of a female.

The barriers between animals are not impenetrable. A tigress will sometimes share her territory with her grown daughters, and a resident male allows several breeding females to occupy segments of his range. But he rarely shows similar generosity towards other males, including his own sons, and so, as tigers continue to breed within the undisturbed core areas of the parks, young animals—or weakened old ones—are driven out toward the periphery. The forest corridors between parks that the planners of Project Tiger had hoped to maintain for just such immigrants have largely failed to materialize under the competing pressures of population and agriculture, and these hungry displaced animals are forced to cling to the forest edge. This increases the chances of confrontation between man and animal.

With the fear of no one the great cats colonized every kind of habitat, from rain forests and swamps to the lower slopes of mountains to desert-like scrub lands. The Indian tiger is so adaptable that it can cope up with extremes in temperature from 0o C to 47o C in some parts.

Reproduction and Life Cycle

Males reach maturity at 4–5 years of age, and females at 3–4 years. Mating can occur at any time of the year, but is most prevalent between November and April. Tigress comes into heat at intervals of about 3–9 weeks, and is receptive for 3–6 days. After a gestation period of 104–106 days, 1to 4 cubs are born in a secluded and secured place. Newborn cubs weigh from 780 to 1600 g (2 lb). They have a thick wooly fur, which is shed after 3.5–5 months. Their eyes and ears are closed at berth. Milk teeth start to erupt at about 2–3 weeks after birth, and are slowly replaced by permanent dentition from 8.5–9.5 weeks of age onwards. They suckle for 3–6 months, and begin to eat small amounts of solid food at about 2 months of age. At this time, they follow their mother on her hunting expeditions and begin to take part in hunting at 5–6 months of age. When they are about two years old, they slowly start to separate from the family group and become transient — looking out for an area, where they can establish their own territory. Young males move further away from their mother’s territory than the females. Once the family group has split, the mother comes into heat again.

Tigers reproduce well if given a chance. An average female can rear some six to eight cubs over her 10-12 year lifespan.

Hunting and diet

Like all cats, tigers too are carnivores. They prefer large ungulates such as sambar, cheetal (axis or spotted deer), gaur, and to a lesser extent barasingha or Barasinga, water buffalo, neelgai, serow and takin. Among the medium-sized prey species they frequently kill wild boar, and occasionally hog deer, muntjac and Gray langur. Small prey species include hares, peafowl and porcupines, but they form a very small part of their diet. Due to human encroachments onto their habitat, these big cats also prey on domestic livestock.

There are occasions when tigers take other predators too, such as sloth bears and Asiatic black bears, wolves, jackals, foxes, crocodiles and even leopards as prey, although these animals do not form part of their regular diet. Nevertheless, adult rhinoceroses and elephants are not part of the tiger’s menu, as they are too large to be successfully tackled, but there are records which show that tigers have attacked such animals too. Indian hunter and naturalist Jim Corbett described an incident in which two tigers fought and killed a large bull elephant. If injured, old or weak, or their normal prey is becoming scarce; they may even attack humans and become man-eaters.

In most cases, tigers approach their victim from the side or behind from as close a distance as possible and grasp the prey’s throat to kill it. Then they drag the carcass into cover, occasionally over several hundred meters, to consume it. The nature of the tiger’s hunting method and prey availability results in a “feast or famine” feeding style: they often consume 18–40 kilograms (40–88 lb) of meat at one time.

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