The Bengal tiger (Panthera tigris tigris) is the most well-known of all the tigers and is also called the “Indian tiger”or the “Royal Bengal tiger”. The endangered Bengal tiger, together with the now extinct Caspian tiger and the critically endangered Siberian tiger, is one of the largest cats that has ever existed. With a population estimated at over 2,633 individuals, they are the most numerous of all remaining tiger subspecies in the wild.
DNA studies of the Bengal tiger have found that they arrived in India approximately 12,000 years ago – which in modern felid evolutionary terms, is relatively very recently. All 37 living cat species trace back to a panther-like predator that lived in Southeast Asia 11 million years ago. The big cats began to diverge a few million years later, splitting the Panthera genus into two groups: the clouded leopards, and the ‘great roaring cats’ including the lion, jaguar, snow leopard, leopard and tiger.
Today, the endangered Bengal tiger subspecies can be found mostly in India where there are approximately 2,226 individuals (and increasing), but also in Nepal home to 198 tigers, Bhutan with 103 Bengal tigers and Bangladesh home to 106.
India, with its tropical jungles and swampy mangrove forests, was once home to tens of thousands of tigers. The Bengal tiger has been the national symbol of India since the 25th century BCE and is still the official animal of the country. However, tigers have long been both feared and hunted to near extinction in the “Land of the Tiger”.
It is estimated that 80,000 majestic and powerful Bengal tigers were systematically slaughtered by both the British and the Maharajas in just 50 years from 1875 to 1925. In Assam, famous for its tea, the state paid rewards for dead tigers as recently as 1940. Despite this decimation, the Bengal tiger managed to cling onto the edge of existence and in 1972 finally gained protection under India’s new Wildlife Protection Act.
By that time, less than 2,000 tigers remained. Despite these new protections, in 2014 the tiger population in India had dropped to a mere 750 individuals. Today Bengal tigers are slowly recovering; with 2,633 tigers making up almost 70% of the world’s remaining wild tigers.
The Bengal tiger is the second largest subspecies of tiger after the Siberian tiger. It has the characteristic tiger coat of orange with black stripes. The Bengal subspecies also carries the rare white tiger gene. These “white tigers” are born with a white coat and blue eyes due to a genetic mutation.
This recessive gene creates reduced pigmentation known as leucism (albinism is when there is a complete lack of pigment). For a white tiger to be born, both parents must have this same recessive gene. This is extremely rare in the wild (a 1 in 10,000 chance) and with so few tigers remaining, is extremely unlikely to ever occur again naturally.
The Bengal tigers of the Sundarbans are the only tigers in the world that inhabit mangrove forests. The Sundarbans is a cluster of low-lying islands in the Bay of Bengal, famous for its unique mangrove forests. This delta region stretching from northeastern India to southern Bangladesh, is home to many threatened wildlife species including famously, the tigers of the Sundarbans. A recent tiger count conducted from 2018-2019 reported 210 tigers in the Sundarbans.
Given their unique habitat, the Bengal Tigers of the Sundarbans have developed unique traits that enable them to survive in their muddy, unforgiving habitat – including being able to drink the salty water. Their diet is also quite different to other tiger populations. They hunt by the tides and in the water, seeking out tasty aquatic prey from turtles to water monitors, and crabs. They also prey on spotted deer and wild boar that come to the mangroves in search of food.
A study of collared Sundarban tigers in 2015 found that on average they swim five water channels a day. They have been said to lead an ‘amphibious’ life, actively mostly in the water, which is very different to other tigers who, while comfortable in the water, use it primarily to cool themselves off and not for hunting. These special tigers have adapted well to their local habitat, mastering the art of swimming and are able to navigate from island to island in search of prey, defending themselves from crocodiles and sharks!
While they have been called the “man-eaters of the Sundarbans”, this is a misleading legacy of colonialism, a justification to hunt and extirpate tigers. Tigers try to stay as far away from humans as possible. The deaths that have occurred have been accidental, when villagers have trespassed into tiger territory to collect forest produce such as wood, crabs, honey or to fish. Humans are easier and more convenient targets than wild prey species, particularly for an older or injured tiger.
India has a special spiritual relationship with tigers, and a long-held cultural understanding of the role tigers play in protecting forests. An ancient Indian story called the Mahabharata, dating to about 400 BCE, said “The tiger perishes without the forest, and the forest perishes without its tigers. Therefore, the tiger should stand guard over the forest, and the forest should protect all its tigers”. It is thanks to this healthy fear and respect for of the tigers that the Sundarbans and its important mangrove forests have been protected. Without tigers, the delta would have been deforested and unsustainably developed. Today, the mangroves are an important buffer against climate change and increasingly intense cyclones.
The Bengal tiger is also known to roam at high altitudes. In Bhutan and Nepal, Bengal tigers climb have been spotted on camera traps, up high in the Himalayan mountains and its subalpine forest habitat. The highest altitude recorded for a wild tiger was in Wangchuck Centennial National Park (Bhutan) at 4,400m.
The major threat to tigers around the world, including Bengal tigers, is poaching and illegal killing due to conflict with humans. Tigers are poached for their body parts and skins, with their bones used for “tiger wine” and as an ingredient in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Demand for tiger parts is perpetuated by tiger farms within China where they are bred legally for commercial trade.
Another major threat to tiger survival is habitat loss and fragmentation. Tigers, as solitary hunters, need very large wild territories to roam. However, tiger habitat is still being lost to deforestation and development. In India today, it is estimated that 1000 Bengal tigers live outside of officially protected areas.
These areas are not connected to larger tiger conservation landscapes and are under immense pressure from mining, infrastructure development (for example for the construction of power lines) and the expansion of livestock grazing. This disturbance and the development of roads causes fragmentation of tiger habitat, cutting off gene exchange and isolating tigers into unsustainably small and isolated populations. It is the same story for tigers in Nepal, where habitat loss and fragmentation plus poaching are the major challenges for tiger conservation.
The Bengal tiger and its habitat, particularly the unique population living in the coastal Sundarbans, is also threatened by climate change. Sea-level rise threatens to submerge tiger habitat and push the tigers further inland towards human settlements and conflict. Climate change will also warm inland forests, negatively impacting and changing the flora that the tigers’ prey depends upon.
Today, for the first time in decades, the Bengal tiger (Panthera tigris tigris) is on the rise again thanks to tiger range country commitments to work together towards the “Tx2” goal made at the 2010 Tiger Summit. This international commitment amongst tiger range states aims to double wild tiger numbers by the year 2022. In India, tiger population recovery was achieved by better forest management and reducing human-wildlife conflict by moving villages away from tiger habitats. Today there are 50 tiger reserves in India, up from only 8 when the Bengal tiger was officially protected in 1973.
Nepal has also had recent success with its tiger conservation, on track to double its tiger numbers by 2022. Nepal’s first tiger census in 2009 found 121 wild tigers. Today over 235 wild tigers were confirmed in the last survey in 2018. Such rapid recovery is a major achievement towards the conservation of the species. This dramatic success was made possible in Nepal by empowering law enforcement from park rangers to police and judges, plus securing the livelihoods of communities that share their home with wildlife – including job-creation in and outside tiger reserves, and concerted efforts to mitigate human-wildlife conflict.
However, tigers in Nepal have reached the carrying capacity of existing reserves, meaning existing tiger territories need to be expanded to sustain continued tiger recovery. The recent sighting of a tiger in the Himalayan mountains in Nepal highlights the importance of protecting high-altitude habitat for tigers as a potential wild refuge particularly in a hotter climate-changed future.
Key to tiger recovery is expanding and connecting the tiger conservation landscape. An important area for Bengal tigers is the Terai Tiger Landscape. Here, tigers are using two forest corridors that connect Nepal and India. The dispersal of tigers between sites plays an important role in maintaining demographically stable and genetically robust tiger populations.
The most pressing task for conservation is to protect these corridors and to re-establish connectivity between other sites by restoring corridors that have been eroded by development and land-use change. Protecting and restoring tiger forests and corridors is not only good for tigers – it also helps to mitigate climate change, and protects India’s villages from floods and droughts. By saving tigers, we our actually saving ourselves.
The best chance of spotting a wild tiger in the world is India, home to 70% of the global wild tiger population in 50 tiger reserves.
What kind of habitat does the Bengal tiger live in?
Bengal tiger’s habitat includes tropical and dry forests, alpine forests, mangrove swamps, and tall grasslands.
How long do Bengal Tigers live?
Bengal tigers like other tiger species can live up to 25 years, possibly longer in captivity.
How much do Bengal Tigers weigh?
Tigers are one of the largest cats in the world; size varies from one tiger species to another. The weight of a Bengal tiger can be quite substantial. Some reports claim a Bengal tiger can tip the scales at 800 lbs. but many are around 600 to 700-pounds.
The average weight of an adult male is approximately 400 to 500 pounds. Female tigers are usually smaller with average weight around 200 to 350 pounds.
Where do Bengal tigers live?
Bengal tigers, also known as the Indian Tiger and the Royal Bengal Tiger live mostly in India . They are the most common tiger and number about half of all wild tigers. The Bengal tiger has been the national symbol of India for many centuries.
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