In honor of International Tiger Day (which is celebrated on July 29th), here are a few things you might not know about the exotic—and endangered—animal.
1. No tiger stripe is the same.
The big cats use their coats as camouflage. Every tiger has a unique set of stripes that can be used to identify it, similar to human fingerprints. Some tigers have orange fur with black stripes; others are black with tan stripes, white with tan stripes, or all white (albino).
2. Tigers are an endangered species.
Humans have long hunted tigers for their fur and and other parts (more on that below). They are also rapidly losing their habitats, since people have co-opted most of their land for farming and logging. (The island of Sumatra, home of the Sumatran tiger, for example, has lost 50 percent of its forest cover.) In just over a century, 97 percent of the tiger population has perished, three subspecies have gone extinct, and the whole species is expected to be extinct in just a decade.
3. There are more tigers in captivity than in the wild.
There are thought to be 3000 tigers in the wild and between 5000 and 10,000 tigers in U.S. cages. An estimated 90 percent of them are kept in roadside zoos, backyard breeder facilities, circus wagons, and as pets in homes.
4. Tigers are the largest members of the cat family ...
... Followed by the lion in second place, and the jaguar in third. The Siberian tiger, the largest subspecies, can weigh up to 675 pounds and is capable of killing animals twice its size.
5. Tigers are territorial.
Tigers live alone and scent-mark their territories—which can be up to 10,000 square kilometers in size. A male tiger guards his territory from other males, but must offer access to females for potential mating. A male's territory will always be larger than a female's, and may overlap with the territories of one to seven females.
6. There were once nine sub-species of tigers.
At one time, these subspecies included the Bengal, the Siberian, the Indochinese, the South Chinese, the Sumatran, the Malayan, the Caspian, the Javan, and the Bali. Of these, the Caspian, the Javan, and the Bali are extinct, the South Chinese is extinct in the wild, and the rest are endangered.
7. A tiger’s lifespan is usually 10 to 15 years.
Tigers are typically nocturnal and solitary animals. At the beginning of their lives, they spend two and a half years with their mothers before venturing out to live the rest of their days alone.
8. Many cultures consider the tiger to be a symbol of strength and courage.
However, that comes with drawbacks, as hunting them is also considered a sign of bravery. In Asia, tigers are one of the top five animals that people pay huge amounts of money for the "privilege" of hunting. In addition, it is believed that at least 60 percent of China’s billion-plus inhabitants use medicines with tiger-derived ingredients. The booming economies (and related personal incomes) in Southeast Asia have caused demand and prices for tiger-related products to soar; in general, the international trade in wildlife products is an estimated $6 billion-a-year business.
9. All tigers are carnivores, but carnivores with manners.
Male tigers usually hunt and feast alone. However, if they have a family, they will let the female tigress and her cubs eat first. Their typical diet consists mainly of pigs, deer, rhinos, and elephant calves, and they are capable of eating up to 21 kilograms of meat per day.
10. Tigers can have as many as seven cubs.
Adult females generally produce a litter every two years. However, only about half of the litter survives, because the mother cannot abandon the group long enough to kill the prey necessary to sustain them all. The cubs only join their mother for the hunt after eight to 10 months of careful instruction from mom.
11. Tigers rely heavily on their teeth for survival.
Tigers' jaws are made for "snapping necks, crunching through bone and sinew, and grinding meat into mouthfuls soft enough to swallow." Their canine teeth are especially sharp, and are packed full of nerve endings that allow for hunting and attacking with precision. If a tiger were to lose its canines, it would no longer be able to kill and would likely starve to death.
This story has been updated for 2019.