The Bali Tiger is a now extinct subspecies of tiger that adapted and evolved to live on the island of Java in Indonesia. It was also sadly the first tiger subspecies to go extinct in modern history, hunted down by Dutch colonial hunters. The last known Bali tiger was shot in 1937.
Indonesia is unique among tiger range countries as the only place in the world where tigers evolved on islands. Bali island lies next to Java and Sumatra in a chain of volcanic islands that form part of the Greater Sunda Islands in Indonesia. The extinct Bali and Java tigers, together with the critically endangered Sumatran tiger, all evolved from a single tiger ancestor called the Sunda tiger.
It is thought that each tiger subspecies became isolated and adapted uniquely to its island home when sea levels rose shortly after the last Ice Age about 10,000 years ago, isolating the tigers into island populations and restricting gene flow. While evolving from a common ancestor, recent mtDNA analysis confirmed that the Bali, Java and Sumatran tigers are indeed unique tiger sub-species.
Distinctive Bali Tiger Features
The Bali tiger was the smallest of all the tigers, about the size of a mountain lion or leopard. It had short fur that was a dark yellowish orange fur and relatively fewer black stripes compared to other tigers. Some even had black spots amongst the stripes.
The Bali tiger had bar-type patterns on their heads and white fur on their underbellies that stood out against the contrasting dark orange fur of their body. This contrast of white fur followed a curved and distinct line. Some say it gave the Bali tiger, together with its smaller size, a more graceful appearance in comparison to the other tigers.
The tiger was the apex predator of Bali’s forests, playing a key role in maintaining the balance of other species on the island. Its diet consisted of the Javan Rusa deer, Red Junglefowl, Wild boar, Indian Muntjac, Monkeys, Banteng (a type of now extinct wild cow) and Monitor Lizards.
One theory to explain why the tigers of Indonesia evolved to a smaller body size than other tiger subspecies is “Island Dwarfing” whereby animals confined to smaller island habitats evolve to become smaller over time due to limited resources. The small size of the Bali tigers was likely also an adaptation to their smaller-sized prey.
How many tigers are there – two, six, nine? In 2017 the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Cat Specialist Group reclassified felid taxonomy and recognized tigers as only two subspecies divided into northern and southern tigers: the continental tigers P. t. tigris of mainland Asia (which includes the Siberian and Caspian tigers), and the island tigers of the Greater Sunda Islands (which included the Bali and Javan tigers and the surviving Sumatran tigers) as P.t.sondaica with common name the Sunda island tiger.
However, the jury is out as a study that sequenced the whole-genome of tigers found support for six subspecies. This is important genetic information to guide appropriate conservation measures to preserve the full genetic diversity of the world’s remaining tigers.
Cause of Bali Tiger Extinction
The Bali tiger was driven to extinction due to relentless hunting and the loss of its habitat and prey. It was feared by the indigenous settlers of Bali who thought they were evil spirits and ground up their whiskers to make poison. However, they learnt to fear the tigers while living along side them and co-existed in a human-tiger equilibrium.
It wasn’t until the arrival of Dutch settlers and their guns in the 16th century that the tigers of Bali became imperiled. When Dutch settlers arrived to colonize the island of Bali, they deforested the tiger’s natural habitat to make way for palm plantations and irrigated rice fields, while deliberately baiting and killing the small population of tigers. This pushed the Bali tigers to their final refuge in the mountainous northwestern areas of the island by the turn of the 20th century. For 300 years, the tigers were hunted by the Dutch until they were entirely extirpated, and their habitat converted for farming and settlements.
The Bali tigers were hunted by first luring them with bait and setting a heavy paw trap hidden under the bait (a goat or muntjac) before being shot at close range. The Bali tiger was particularly vulnerable to extinction given its restricted range on the small island of Bali and it had no place to escape from its only predators, humans. A single hunter, gunmaker E Munaut, single handedly killed over 20 tigers in just a few years.
In 1941, today’s West Bali National Park was established, but it was too late to save the Bali tiger from extinction. The last confirmed Bali tiger was an adult female who was shot in West Bali in September 1937, although it is possible that some individuals persisted for 20-30 years with rumors of sightings in the 70s that were not able to be confirmed. The Bali tiger was declared officially extinct in 2008.
The Bali tiger was never photographed alive or kept at a zoo. Today only ten skins and skulls of tigers are known to be preserved in museum collections across the world. The British Museum in London has two skins and three skulls –the largest collection at any museum. Other museums that have the remnants of Bali tigers are the Naturkunde Museum in Stuttgart, the Senckenberg Museum in Frankfurt, the Zoological Museum of Bogor, Indonesia and the Naturalis Museum in Leiden. In 1997, the skull of a Bali tiger was found in an old collection at the Hungarian Natural History Museum.
Return of the Bali Tiger?
With the closest living relative of the extinct Bali tiger being the endangered Sumatran tiger, it is critically important to conserve and protect the world’s last Sumatran tigers and their habitat. Indonesia has a dark track-record when it comes to tigers, losing two of the planet’s tiger subspecies to extinction. The Sumatran tiger is now the last chance for the tigers of Indonesia.
The close genetic relationship of the Sumatran tiger with the now extinct Bali tiger preserves the prospect of a future of wild tigers in Bali, sourced from wild or captive Sumatran tiger populations. It is a big undertaking that would first require the managed restoration of suitable and prey-enriched habitats in Bali. By protecting the Sumatran tiger, this preserves the future possibility for tigers to once again roam the island of Bali, if wild space can be secured.
Bali Tiger Population
Bali Tiger Fast Facts
Bali Tiger FAQ
Where did the Bali Tiger Live?
The Bali tiger, now extinct, lived only on the island of Bali in Indonesia.
What did the Bali Tiger eat?
The Bali tiger was the apex predator of its island home. Its diet included the Javan Rusa deer, Red Junglefowl, Wild boar, Indian Muntjac, Monkeys, Banteng (a type of now extinct wild cow) and Monitor Lizards.
What is the closest living tiger of the Bali tiger?
The closest living relative of the extinct Bali tiger is the endangered Sumatran tiger. It is critically important to conserve and protect the world’s last Sumatran tigers and their habitat.
How big was the Bali Tiger?
The Bali tiger was the smallest of all the tigers, about the size of a mountain lion or leopard.
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