The Caspian tiger (Panthera tigris virgata) is a now extinct sub-species of tiger that adapted and evolved to live near rivers and lakes on the edges of dry desert environments in Central Asia. It got its name like other tigers, by the places where it roamed – around the Caspian Sea.
It once populated the largest geographical range of any tiger subspecies: from modern day Turkey through much of Central Asia to northwestern China. By the late 1800s, Caspian tigers still inhabited modern day Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, northwest China, Georgia, Iran, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan but had completely disappeared by the 1940s–1960s.
The Caspian tiger was one of the biggest tigers to ever live, which also makes it one of the largest cats to roam our planet in modern history. It is said to have a coat that was a more gold, yellowish color with brown stripes sometimes dark, sometimes light. It had narrow stripes that were close together and yellow stripes on its white belly fur.
Living in the colder northern areas of tiger range, it had thicker fur than the Sunda tigers found in tropical forests. Its preferred habitat was a dry desert environment close to water sources with trees, foliage shrubs, dense grasses and tugai reeds. It is also known to have traveled along with the migratory herds of its favorite prey animals which included wild boar and deer species.
The Caspian tiger subspecies was driven to extinction due to the same pressures facing tigers today: deliberate killing through hunting and poisoning, and habitat loss.
The Caspian tiger was already vulnerable because of their restricted range which lay close to water in areas that were mostly desert. Its dependence on access to water meant that it needed to live near river basins, lake edges and seashores, which is also where humans preferred to settle. As humans moved into their territory, they also ate the tiger’s food, depleting stocks of its prey species. This conflict and development of their habitat edged them toward extinction.
In the first half of the 1900s, thousands of Caspian tigers were killed through poisoning and trapping which was promoted by bounties paid by the former Soviet Union until the 1930s. The Russian army was ordered to kill Caspian tigers, which decimated their numbers and led ultimately to their legal protection in 1947. Unfortunately, the clearing of their forest habitat for agriculture continued, further decreasing their population.
The Caspian tiger had mostly disappeared from its range by the mid-1900s. The last Caspian tiger to be shot was in 1957 with an officially documented sighting near the Afghanistan border in 1958 and one sighting near the Aral Sea region in 1968. Some reports suggest that the last Caspian tiger was captured and killed in northeast Afghanistan in 1997. Sadly, today no living Caspian tigers remain, including in captivity. They were officially declared extinct in 2003.
- Northwest China
The Caspian tiger subspecies is very similar genetically – almost indistinguishable-from the critically endangered Amur (Siberian) tiger which survives today in the forests of the Russian Far East. In fact, it differs from the Amur tiger by only a single nucleotide in its mtDNA. This strongly suggests that the Amur and Caspian tigers share a recent common ancestor, and that this ancestor moved across central Asia, finding a niche in the regions near the Caspian Sea and in the Amur regions of the Far East.
With this finding, conservationists began to seriously consider the feasibility of the return of tigers to Central Asia, by translocating a population of wild Amur tigers from Russia to Kazakhstan. A recent study identified a promising reintroduction site in the riverine forests and reed beds of the Ili River delta and southern shores of Balkash Lake in southeaster Kazakhstan. This proposed re-introduction site could support up to nearly 100 tigers within 50 years.
The Kazakhstan Government is already preparing for the tiger’s return and recently established the Ili-Balkhash Nature Reserve (over 415,000 ha in size) in 2017 as the first step towards their reintroduction. Work is underway to restore the reserve’s unique riparian forest habitat adjacent to Lake Balkhash, and its prey population to a level that will support the tiger’s large appetite, estimated at 450 ungulates per year per tiger! Work to return the tiger’s prey is already underway, with a first group of Bukhara (tugai) reintroduced to the new reserve in December 2018.
The timeline for the first Amur tigers to arrive is in only a few years, currently on track for 2024, by which time the Bukhara deer, Wild boar and Roe deer must once again be common in the forest of the Ili-Balkash Nature Reserve.
The major threat to the recovery of the Bukhara deer population, and the tigers once they return, is poaching. The Government of Kazakhstan has employed rangers and anti-poaching units for mobile patrols to protect the Reserve and its wildlife. Another test for the Amur tiger, transplanted from the forests of the Russian Far East, will be if it can adapt to the more arid conditions of this region as the Caspian tiger did thousands of years ago.
This is a very exciting project and holds great hope and importance for global tiger conservation. Very soon tigers should be roaming again in the former Caspian tiger’s range in Central Asia.
Where did Caspian tigers live?
The Caspian tiger was named like other tigers, by the places where it lived and roamed, around the Caspian Sea. It once populated the largest geographical range of any tiger subspecies: from modern day Turkey through much of Central Asia to northwestern China.
Caspian tigers lived in the following countries:
How large was the Caspian tiger?
The Caspian tiger was one of the biggest tigers to roam the planet in modern history.
Male Caspian tigers had a body length of approximately 270-295 cm (106–116 inches) and they weighed 170-240 kg (370–530 lbs.); female Caspian tigers had a body length of 240-260 cm (94–102 inches) and weighed 85-135 kg (187–298 lbs.).
When did the Caspian tiger go extinct?
The Caspian tiger was officially classified as extinct in 2003. There was a reported sighting in 1958 and one of the last confirmed sightings of the Caspian tiger was in Kegeli in Karakalpkstan in 1974.
What is the Caspian tiger's scientific name?
The scientific name is Panthera tigrisvirgata
What caused the Caspian tiger to go extinct?
Caspian tigers were driven to extinction due to deliberate killing, hunting, poisoning, lack of prey, Russian colonization of Turkestan, and habitat loss.
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