The Caspian Tiger (Panthera tigris virgata), also known as the Persian tiger, Turanian tiger, Hyrcanian tiger and Mazandaran tiger, historically found in Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkey, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Mongolia is now extinct. Earlier thought to be a distinct separate subspecies, Caspian tiger is in fact a closely related cousin of Siberian tiger. According to a new genetic analysis the extinct tiger lives on in the Siberian Tiger (Panthera tigris altaica). Researchers from the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom collected tissue samples from 20 Caspian tiger specimens kept in museums across Eurasia. Afterwards, researchers from the U.S. National Cancer Institute (NCI) Laboratory of Genomic Diversity in Frederick, Maryland, sequenced parts of five mitochondrial genes. The Caspian Tiger’s mitochondrial DNA is only one letter of genetic code separated from Siberian Tiger DNA, while it is readily distinguishable from the DNA of other tiger subspecies. This indicates that the Caspian and the Siberian subspecies are really one. The scientists claim that the two are very similar because both have descended from the same migrating ancestors who colonized Central Asia via the narrow Gansu Corridor (Silk Road) from eastern China. Experts suggest that somewhere in the early 20th century, Siberian and Caspian populations intermingled, but hunters subsequently isolated them. This resulted in the Siberian population splitting off from the Caspians only in the past century.
The main background colour of the animal’s coat varied, though generally, it was brighter and more uniform than that of Far Eastern populations. The stripes on the body were narrower, fuller and more closely set as compared to Siberian subspecies and their colour was a mixture of brown or cinnamon shades. Pure black patterns were found only on the head, neck, and middle of the back and at the tip of the tail. Angular patterns at the base of the tail were less developed as compared to the tigers belonging to the Far Eastern populations. The contrast between the summer and winter coats was sharp, though not to the same extent as in Far Eastern populations. The winter coat was paler with less distinct patterns while the summer coat had a similar density and hair length to that of the Bengal tiger, though the stripes were usually narrower, longer and closer set.
Its body was less massive than that of its Far Eastern cousins. Males in Turkestan were more than 200 cm in length, though an estimated body length of 270 cm was recorded. As in other subspecies females were smaller, normally ranging 160–180 cm. The maximum known weight was 240 kg. Although Turkestanian tiger never reached the size of Siberian tiger, there are records of very large individuals of the former population. For instance, on 10th January 1954, a tiger was killed on the Sumbar in Kopet-Dag, which had a skull length of 385 mm, which is considerably more than the known maximum for this population and slightly exceeds that of most Far Eastern tigers. However, tigers in Manchuria have been recorded having larger skulls of 406 mm in length.
The tiger’s prey in Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan was primarily Bactrian deer and boars. On the Zhana-Darya and around the Aral Sea in Kazakhstan, they preyed upon mountain sheep, Mongolian Wild Ass, goitered gazelle, wild horses and saiga in addition to boars. In lower Amu-Darya River, their prey also included jungle cats, jackals and locusts. In Tajikistan and other regions of central Asia, as well as Kazakhstan, big cats frequently killed dogs, horses and rarely camels for food. In Baikal, their diet included roe deer, wild boar, moose, caucasian wisent, Manchurian wapiti and livestock. Unlike Bengal tigers the Caspian tigers, like the Siberian subspecies, rarely became man-eaters. In the southeast Trans-Caucasus, the Caspian big cats preyed mainly on wild boar, though they occasionally fed on red deer, roe deer and domestic animals such as dogs and cattle in winter months. Tigers in Iran ate the same species with the addition of gazelle.
History and possible extinction
Caspian tigers inhabited wide spaces of Western and Central Asia till 19th century. In the middle of the century, they were killed 180 km northeast of Atbasar in Kazakhstan and as far North as near Barnaul in Russia. The only reported tiger from Iraq was killed in 1887 near Mosul. The last one near the Lop Nur basin in Xinjiang (China) was killed in 1899 and by 1920s these cats had disappeared from the Tarim River basin in Xinjiang. The last known specimen in the Caucasus region was killed near Tbilisi, Georgia, in 1922 after killing domestic livestock. The last credible record of tiger on the Ili River, which used to be their last stronghold in the region of Lake Balkhash, Kazakhstan, dates to 1948.
The Russian government had been responsible for eradicating the Caspian tiger on a large scale while planning a huge land reclamation program in the beginning of the 20th century. In their scheme of things there was no place for the striped cat so the country’s army was ordered to wipe out all tigers found around the area of the Caspian Sea and the army carried out orders very efficiently. After the task was almost complete, farmers were instructed to clear forests, which were followed by planting of crops like rice and cotton. Large scale hunting and deforestation forced the animals first to retreat from the lush lowlands to the forested ranges and then to marshes around some of the larger rivers and finally, deeper into the mountains. Even this could not save them from becoming extinct.
Finally, realizing the importance of wildlife and forests a national park named Tigrovaya Balka was opened in 1938, in Tajik USSR to save Riparian forests and rare animals, including Caspian subspecies, but it didn’t help. This habitat was the remaining stronghold of tiger in the Soviet Union where the last specimen was seen in 1958.
Some claim the last tiger was shot in Golestan National Park (Iran) or in Northern Iran in 1959. However, others assert, the last one disappeared from the Manasi River basin in the Tian Shan Mountains, west of Ürümqi in China in 1960s. The last record from the lower reaches of the Amu Darya River near Lake Aral was an unconfirmed observation near Nukus in 1968 while tigers disappeared from the river’s lower reaches and the Pyzandh Valley once a stronghold, in the Turkmen-Uzbek-Afghan border region by the early 1970s. There are even claims of a documented killing of the tiger at Uludere, Hakkari in Turkey during 1970. There are also reports stating that the last tiger was captured and killed in Northeast Afghanistan in 1997.
The most commonly quoted date is late 1950s, but there is almost no evidence to support it. Many of the facts that have come to light recently reflect an even earlier date of extinction. The area of Iran that had the last tigers was in fact the eastern region of Mazandaran in Northern Iran. E. Firouz claims in his book “A Guide to the Fauna of Iran, 1999”, the last tiger was killed in 1947 near Agh-Ghomish Village, 10 km East of Kalaleh, on way to Minoodasht-Bojnoord, but even he has not mentioned the exact date.
Now the scientists have unanimity on the point that the Caspian tiger, as a distinct population has been destroyed irreversibly. According to the confirmed official data and supported by the scientific researches, during 1900-1968 nine tigers were killed in Kopet Dag Mountains. Renowned scientists (Dement’yev and Rustamov) say the last tiger was killed on 10 January 1954 in the surroundings of Kone-Kosir in the Valley of Sumbar River in Kopet Dag Mountains.
Occasional claims of the tiger being sighted are still being made, with some occurring in Afghanistan and other coming from the more remote forested areas of Turkmenistan. However, experts have not found any solid evidence to support these claims. The last reliable sighting was probably at least 30 years ago. It has also been said that the claimed ‘tiger’ sightings could have been Persian Leopards.