Top Ten Cats #3 – Tiger, Panthera tigris

This cat genuinely gives me butterflies in my belly. What calm majesty in this sleeping giant (Credit: mysgreen1)

CONTENT WARNING: Contains images of animal cruelty

“Tiger, tiger burning bright…” etc.

I’ve got tiger stories up the wazoo, man.

I did a pub quiz once where I argued for an extra half point because the question was ‘what is the largest cat in the world?’ and everyone said tiger, but I said, quite rightfully, that it would be the Amur or Siberian tiger – Once Panthera tigris altaica, but now considered a distinct population of the wider Panthera tigris tigris, that is the largest.

Other sub-species of tiger are actually smaller than, say, male lions – so technically if you phrased the question what is the largest cat ‘species’ then the answer would be the tiger, Panthera tigris, but it wasn’t.

It didn’t work, nobody got points docked and I got no extra points.

But that’s just sour grapes I’ve been fermenting into a very bitter wine over the years.

The other story I have concerns how I, academically, decided to pursue biology.

Surely I’ve explained how my mother is a complete wildlife documentary fiend and I grew up in a three parent family of a mother, a father and a television? If not, well now you know. So my interest in nature started there. Seeing all these amazing images on the screen of stuff that, it wasn’t a movie or a special effect, it was real. That cheetah hunting, it was real. That weird chameleon, that was real. Jellyfish – how are they real? I don’t know, but they are.

This is real! Tigers, like jaguars, are natural swimmers and often swim long distances. Unlike most cats who have an aversion to water (Credit: catlovers under CC BY-SA 2.0)

But my school years were fraught with undiagnosed autistic confusion. Everyone and everything wanted to point me in the direction of what, or who I wanted to be whilst I was still trying to figure who, what or why the fuck I even was in the first place.

One thing I had always been interested in was the weird. I was born in ’88, I was a kid in the early 90s, I’m a child of the X-Files era, ‘the truth is out there…’, and while my brother was a bigger fan of the show I was a bigger fan of the mysteries. Ghosts, the weird, the unexplained, the conspiracies, UFOs, I gobbled it up. I can even remember crying myself to sleep some nights from reading scary ghost stories.

With hindsight I am glad I explored it at that age. Otherwise there is a very real and present danger I would have some…questionably motivated political beliefs right now. I ended up preferring the weirder conspiracies anyway, you know? Jim Morrison faked his own death to go be a beat poet on Haiti, Princess Diana was killed because she picked the wrong hair stylist, Elvis used to sleep on a bed of peanut-butter cheeseburgers – that sort of thing.

One thing, though, that I have never and will never grow out of, is cryptids. Cryptids are ‘unknown animals’, and the study of cryptids is called ‘cryptozoology’.

It is widely regarded as a pseudoscience and, as much of an enthusiast as I am, even I will admit that’s for good reason.

You see I think there is merit to cryptozoology because there are unknowns out there. Evolution marches on and life is not fixed, sometimes we discover things long thought extinct dwelling in some forgotten corner of an unexplored wilderness, new species do get discovered, sometimes relatively large ones that you’d think couldn’t have escaped our notice this long, yet they do. Sometimes, as we shall soon talk about, maybe the cryptid is an extant species with a different colour morph. Whatever the reason the truth is there is much to nature we don’t know, that remains a mystery, that we would like to solve and therein lies the validity of cryptozoology.

One of the most famous images in cryptozoology, the supposed shot of a female ‘bigfoot’ from the Patterson-Gimlin film. (Credit: Presumably Patterson and Gimlin, via wikipedia)

Unfortunately there are a lot of people, outnumbering those who approach more from the ‘-zoology’ than the ‘crypto-‘, who just want to fuck a Sasquatch.

And that is why it will always remain a pseudoscience.

The other thing that makes that a shame to me is because all of wildlife’s best tall tales are from cryptozoology and that leads us on to our next tale and one of the reasons I went to university in the first place…I mean I dropped out, twice, but still…It’s my origin story!

Sometime around the age of 15-16 years old I discovered an author of mystery and cryptozoology books named Dr. Karl Shuker. Dr. Shuker is a genuine zoologist, that’s what he got his PhD. in. His zoological approach to cryptozoology was something I really respected. He has a knack, because of his academic qualification and his writing ability of marrying the biology, the zoology, the myth and the tall-tale into one. On the one hand not quite rationalising away the mystery, on the other hand trying to find a rational, zoological explanation. I highly recommend you check out some of his work and his books.

One of the stories in his books (I can’t remember if I read it first in a copy of ‘Mystery Cats of the World’ from the library, or my own copy of ‘Mysteries of Planet Earth’) is truly something to stir the imagination.

You see, sometimes you don’t need a monster, you don’t need a tiger three times the size of a regular one, you don’t need a man-eater, a tiger with claws so sharp it can slice a man in two with one swipe of its paw.

All you need is the notion, the description, a tantalising tease of a Maltese blue tiger. You can read the tale here.

The story reads like a ‘one that got away’ – One of those kinds of stories that could be some booze-sodden traveler trying to impress some friends or could be so true that nobody believes it, that’s the best thing about it.

But just picture that image.

Not a real photo, sadly. An artist’s impression of what a Maltese blue morph tiger may look like…I mean…If one of those exists…Beauty has been perfected. (Credit: Stewiemgr)

A blue tiger.

Blue morphs of cats exist. We have ‘blue’ domestic cats. It’s more of a dusky blue, approaching grey in colour, but as far as I am aware blue morphs have been discovered in other wild cats. Basically felids have a genetic ability to have blue colouration. A blue tiger is plausible.

A domestic cat (Felis cattus) of the Russian Blue breed – Showing blue morphs of felids can exist. (credit: Flor de Azur)

Needless to say, it captured my imagination. I continued reading around the subject, a couple of years passed. Following what I now recognise was an autistic meltdown caused by work related stress I had a strange sort of day. It started with me not going to work, walking past my place of work, to the train station, making my way to London, walking my way to London Zoo in a pair of Cuban heels and my work suit and deciding that day what I needed to do with my life. I needed to study biology.

So part of the reason I do what I do now is because of Dr. Karl Shuker recounting the tale of the blue tiger of Fujian.

1,000 words in and we haven’t even talked about the cat and, do you know what? That suits it.

The tiger is a cat more talked about than seen. For a predator of its size, it doesn’t half have some stealth and grace.

The tiger is one of the most recognisable cats in the world, with its orange-flame coat rising from its generally lighter belly, and its form cut, its outline broken by those striking black stripes. There is no doubt it is one of the most beautiful creatures on planet earth.

Whilst beauty is in the eye of the beholder, there are some sights that if you don’t find them beautiful there is something wrong with you. The grandeur of a cathedral like Il Duomo in Florence, the vista from mountaintops, me, and of course the savage beauty, the coal-and-fire coat and muscular form of the tiger – they are all indisputably beautiful.

Kitten Tax! Unlike a lot of cats, infant tigers take on the distinctive tiger ‘form’ very young. Looking like a tiny version of their adult selves. (Credit: Tambako The Jaguar)

Habitat range is a bit difficult with tigers. They were once prominent across Asia, on various Asian Islands, and up into the Eastern, pacific coast of Russia. They range so far, are mostly solitary and are so elusive that it is hard to tell where they are now. However what we do know is, compared to even very recently their habitat and ranges are now much smaller, and broken or fragmented.  

In fact of all the cats we have so far gone through the tiger is the one most at risk according to the IUCN, fully in the ‘endangered’ category. This is mainly due to human activity. Poaching of tiger for traditional Asian medicines is common, as well as for things like their gorgeous pelts. Combine that with habitat loss and exploitation as Asia continues to grow industrially and you’ve got a recipe for extinction.

A map demonstrating the historical (in yellow) range and the current (in green) range of tiger species, using estimated data from between 1850 and 2006. Note the smaller map in the top right showing a former distribution near the Caspian sea and into Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan etc. This would likely have been the range of the now extinct Caspian Tiger. (Credit: Sanderson, et. al. under Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic)

In fact multiple tiger sub-species or populations have gone extinct, even within living memory. The Caspian tiger has been consider extinct since the late 20th century, with the last recorded sighting in the 1970s. The Javan tiger (revised to not being a sub-species but a separate population of the Sumatran Tiger, Panthera tigris sondaica) has been considered extinct since the 1970s. The Bali Tiger (same sub-species as the Javan) has been extinct since the 1950s. Most of these populations saw their extinction due to sport hunting.

As a result the Sumatran tiger, Panthera tigris sondaica, is now critically endangered, with only an estimate 400-700 individuals left in the wild. It is one of the smaller tiger sub-species, and a stark ambassador for the cruelty that humans can inflict on the beauty of nature.

A Sumatran tiger (Panthera tigris sondaica) at Adelaide zoo. They are one of the smallest tiger sub-species, and tend to have a denser concentration of stripes to their coat. They are also stunningly beautiful (Credit: Kevin1243 under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported)

They are a complex cat. As mentioned they are predominantly solitary but, having such huge home ranges (wandering, and even swimming, up to around 40 miles a day!) their territories often overlap. This sometimes leads to conflicts and fights but has also led to reports of seemingly friendly social interactions, including a male tiger sharing his kill with a tigress and her cubs, and unlike lions where the male eats first, they all joined in together!

This is the incredible thing about tigers, the more we learn about them the more they teach us why We Lack Discipline has the Curious Idiot™ pledge! They teach us that we know nothing. That for all the assumptions we have about tigers they can, will and do surprise us.

They mainly prey upon medium-sized mammals like deer, boar etc. but as we have seen with other far-ranging cats, such as the jaguar, they tend to be opportunistic and will have a munch on just about anything they can – monkeys, birds, hares, domestic livestock if its nearby, they’ll eat just about anything. There are even reports of attempted kills of adult Asian elephants and Rhinos!

These are some remarkable cats.

Now, you may have seen white tigers in zoos and things. The white tiger is bad! Not innately, the creature has done nothing wrong. It’s just that the particular mutation (often misattributed to albinism) giving it what is known as leucistic pigmentation, is generally brought about by inbreeding.

A white tiger from a park in Tenerife – For as beautiful as it may look this is a very rare mutation in the wild and most captive populations are inbred and suffer tremendously from health conditions. This should not happen. (Credit: Ra’ike)

In fact, most of the white Bengal tiger (Panthera tigris tigris) population in captivity can trace their roots directly to one captive cub, Mohan. You can read more via Big Cat Rescue (yes, ‘that bitch Carole Baskin’ – I kinda feel like she should own that. I’d brand that shit if I were her) here.

Mohan was inbred with his own daughter to produce the first of the captive lineage of white cubs.

The problem with this kind of inbreeding is it often leads to defects. Deafness is common in white tigers, as is a problem of cross-eyedness, known as ‘strabismus.’ They can have tendon defect, club foot, kidney problems (very problematic in felines – basically what heart disease is to humans, kidney disease is to cats), weird muscular-skeletal problems, arched backs (scoliosis) – the list is endless.

To get around this problem you can outbreed your white tigers, but outbreeding between two sub-species creates what we would call a ‘generic’ tiger and these are of little to no conservation value. Sub-species of tigers are sub-species because they have adapted to a particular habitat, creating generic tigers dilutes those specialisations and creates a tiger that only has any value in a cage. Which is a fucking tragedy.

The last white tiger seen in the wild was hunted in 1958 – since then they have only ever been known to be captive. We should not be breeding any more white tigers. As beautiful as they may be, the only way they continue to be bred consistently is through abusive, unnatural and unethical practice. White tigers should be a rarity spotted once every few hundred years in India, not an inbred attraction.

There are also other colour morphs, the golden tiger (or golden tabby tiger) exists, as does a black tiger, a pseudo-melanistic morph and, of course there may, just may be a blue tiger out there somewhere.

A golden tiger, or golden tabby, again mainly the result of captive inbreeding – in fact most golden tigers are traceable to a white tiger in the United States named Bhim. He was the son of a part-white tiger named Tony with a specific extra mutation. The dangers of inbreeding to specifically produce these colour morphs are explained in the article. (Credit: Brad Coy – CC BY 2.0)

In the next instalment you will find out that the tiger used to be my absolute favourite cat. It was displaced a little due to research and projects I did on another cat. The fact is it remains one of my favourites and genuinely makes me ‘feel’.

It’s unusual for me, I’m autistic and a rationalist – for people I have little regard beyond wanting everyone to be able to live their best life, but I don’t ‘feel’ the plight. I hate injustice with a passion, I want the world to be a good place, I want people not to suffer but I do not ‘feel’ their suffering all that often.

With tigers, and some other cats, it’s different. Thinking about tigers, writing about tigers, it hurts. I love them, truly. Knowing that they are so close to the brink of extinction, one of Earth’s most majestic predators, surely one of the most beautiful animals to have ever lived, this striking example of feline majesty – I genuinely, whole-heartedly love them and I feel for them.

And what are they going extinct for? Because some ill-informed person who can’t get a hard-on thinks ground up tiger dick will help? Because some obnoxious, self-important piece of shit wants a nice looking throw-rug? Because a corporation desperate to squeeze every last penny of profit out of their industry destroys an entire forest to build a palm oil plantation? Fuck that. FUCK THAT!

The responsibility for the dwindling numbers of tigers is as a result of them being unable to compete against one species and one species alone, Homo sapiens, us, humans. We are supposedly clever enough, in fact we are clever enough, to see the harm we are doing and to rectify it.

A Bali tiger, hunted and killed for sport. This is the reason why many Asian islands no longer have their own populations of tigers. Because abhorrent pieces of shit wanted to kill them to feel big. It disgusts me. (Credit: Public Domain)

There are huge efforts underway to help restore tiger numbers but while greed rules and people don’t make their opinions clear with their wallets the tiger is in danger.

I understand the cultural significance of traditional Asian medicine but almost every significant, scientific study shows it doesn’t work. Is it worth keeping a tradition that doesn’t work and just does more harm than good? I don’t think so.

I want to know that the future of human beings, my great-great-great-great grandchildren can live in a world where tigers roam freely, naturally, doing what tigers do, in their own habitat and, at the current rate of things, that won’t happen. Not only might there be no tigers, there might be no habitat left to have tigers in. This hurts me.

The tiger, the very symbol of solitary majesty, of standing alone against incredible natural forces, may soon be no more because of one united force it could not fight against – human greed.

That’d be a damn shame.

The tiger done, why not read our previous entry, the prehistoric Smilodon sp. – The Sabre-toothed cats?

Or move on to number 2, my personal favourite cat species, the cheetah – Acinonyx jubatus.

Published by Karl Anthony Mercer

An overly curious lovechild of Grumpy of the Seven Dwarfs and the kitsch pen section of Paperchase. Karl is on a mission to expose the seedy underbelly of academia, and thus making it appealing to wrong 'uns.

7 thoughts on “Top Ten Cats #3 – Tiger, Panthera tigris

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

<span>%d</span> bloggers like this: