One life: Tigers

29 July 2021

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Tigers are the largest felines in the world and one of the most endangered. 

Today, fewer than 4,000 free-ranging tigers survive. Three subspecies have already been declared extinct; the Javan tiger, the Caspian tiger, and the Bali tiger, and the remaining wild tigers are under serious threat from habitat destruction, fragmentation and poaching.

Tigers are territorial and require large swaths of habitat for their survival, yet they have lost 93% of their historical range due to habitat destruction, degradation and fragmentation by human activities. Fewer tigers can survive in small, scattered islands of habitat, which leads to a higher risk of inbreeding and makes tigers more vulnerable to poaching as they venture beyond protected areas to establish their own territories.

This wide scale destruction has taken place despite our supposed love and respect for them and many cultures revering them as a symbol of courage, strength, and dignity with people born in the “Year of the Tiger'' considered to be brave, competitive, and self-confident. 

Our perception of the tiger as a courageous, strong hunter has not been enough to stop us from widespread persecution of them as individuals and the animals and habitat they rely upon for their survival. Their last hope may be in us gaining a more thorough understanding of their true nature, as emotionally and behaviourally complex individuals in the hope that this will be enough to change our current course and protect them and their forest homes from total elimination.

Tigers are excellent communicators

Tigers are generally solitary animals, they occupy extensive ranges which they defend from each other, coming together only to mate. To both defend a territory and to attract a mate they use their extensive communication abilities. 

Successfully communicating with prospective mates and competitors in the field poses a significant challenge to solitary hunters like free-ranging tigers whose hunting territories can be extensive. 

Tigers have a sophisticated vocal repertoire which helps them to establish and maintain hunting territories, identify and associate with mates, and to help  females with dependent cubs to escape from approaching males that may cause them harm. They are adept at producing and hearing low frequency and infrasonic sounds, below the frequency range of human hearing, and these can be heard from over three kilometres away. 

Tigers use a range of vocalisations, and when close to one another they may growl, grunt, moan, snarl, chuff, hiss and gasp. Chuffing is a low-intensity sound, which is performed in short, loud bursts. It is reserved for friendly greetings, and it has been likened to the domestic cat’s purr, and an adult male may perform chuffing when he intends to mate with a female. 

A mother tiger may use soft groans to communicate and call to her cubs. These soft sounds are non-threatening, and they may also be used to communicate non-threatening intentions when approaching another tiger. 

Tigers only tend to use the louder, more aggressive snarls and growling that we are more likely to associate with them when they are in defence mode.

How tigers use scent to communicate

One of the most effective ways for tigers to communicate is through scent-marking. This is particularly helpful given that tigers may go for weeks without seeing one another. 

Tigers leave scents rich with information through their urine and their faeces. When a female is ready to mate, she will increase her urine-marking, marking her territory liberally so that nearby males pick up the message. The fluid that tigers leave behind is extremely complex containing over 100 different chemical components

When in direct contact with another tiger, they may rub themselves against each other to exchange scents. Mothers will regularly rub faces with their cubs via facial scent glands to reaffirm their bonds, and courting adult pairs will also carry out this behaviour. 

Tigers also have scent glands at the base of their tail, and between their toes. So, to spread their scent, tigers will rub their hindquarters on trees, and will scratch surfaces to let other tigers know that they are around.

Tiger body language

Like us humans, tigers also use body language to communicate. 

They have very mobile ears and expressive faces, and they will use these expressions to communicate their intentions. When feeling aggressive, a tiger may twist back their ears, showing the onlooker their backs. This accompanied by a lashing tail, wide open eyes and a slightly open mouth, communicates aggressive intent. 

When defensive, tigers flatten their ears on their head, bare their teeth, narrow their eyes, and hang their tail low, whilst a more relaxed tiger will have upright ears and an upright tail. 

Tigers can hide in plain sight

Tigers need to be able to sneak up on their prey, and the tigers distinctive stripey coat acts as camouflage, hiding them as they stalk prey in dense vegetation. 

Tigers have unique identities

Each individual tiger has a unique pattern of stripes, just like our fingerprints, and these stripes are not only found on their fur they’re also imprinted on their skin.

As no two tigers have the same stripes, this pattern enables individuals to identify each other.

Tigers love a dip

Unlike other cats tigers like the water, they are good swimmers and can often be seen cooling off in lakes and streams during the heat of the day.

Tiger mothers protect their young

Mother tigers are affectionate, protective, devoted, sensitive and attentive toward their cubs, raising them to an age where they can survive on their own. Depending on the availability of food, mothers can keep their cubs close for over two years and will be their sole provider of food, protection, and affection.

Tigers learn from each other

To train their cubs to hunt, tiger mums stalk and kill as the cubs look on. The cubs learn her technique and imitate her in later months and years. At times she will bring down an animal, but not kill it, allowing the cubs to finish the kill before eating it. Only once they have enough practice will they start to hunt on their own.

Tigers have moral values 

Tiger cubs and mums will engage in fun activities such as play bouts as the cubs grow up. Play is a very important and complex behaviour for the cubs which aids in learning essential life skills, such as hunting, escaping predators, mating, and of course, having fun.

Playing has psychological and physical benefits, increasing the versatility of movements and the ability to recover from sudden shocks such as the loss of balance and falling over, and enhancing the ability of the cubs to cope emotionally with unexpected stressful situations. 

Play also helps in the development of a young tigers 'social brain, it involves complex cognitive processes such as communication, intention, role playing and cooperation and demonstrates the ability of tigers to understand each other’s intentions. 

For play to be successful, animals must learn the concept of ‘fairness’ abiding by socially acceptable rules that must be followed and sanctions for breaking them. For play to continue the more dominant, stronger individual must be able to adjust their actions to meet the needs of the others. Making a moral decision not to harm the others to ensure continuation of the game.

Individual tigers may also engage in self-handicapping to maintain social play. For example, a larger tiger cub or adult might not bite her play partner as hard as she can, or she might not play as vigorously in fear of harming her playmate. 

There is a premium on playing fairly and trusting others to do so as well. There are codes of social conduct that regulate what is permissible and what is not permissible, and the existence of these codes demonstrate the evolution of social morality. Individuals learn what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ — what is acceptable to others — the result of which is the development and maintenance of a social group that operates efficiently, until the tiger cubs become independent enough to move away from the family group and go it alone.

For more on the moral lives of animals see ‘Wild Justice - The moral lives of animals’ by Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pierce.

Tigers in captivity

Many thousands of tigers are used in circuses and in the tourism industry, forced through fear and punishment into performing meaningless tricks for entertainment. Many more are housed in poor quality conditions within zoos and on tiger farms. 

Tigers on breeding farms are kept in small, barren enclosures with little space to move, far removed from the huge home ranges they have evolved to live within. As a result, the tigers often perform stereotypical pacing due to boredom, frustration and possible fear.

Tigers held on farms are bred for their cubs. Once the mother gives birth, the cub is quickly removed to encourage the mother to enter another breeding cycle. This is not only harmful to the health of the cub, as they miss out on important nutrients from their mother’s milk, but it is likely to cause both the mother and the cub considerable distress due to the early separation.

Tiger temples are another form of captivity for tigers. In these temples, tigers are forced to live unnaturally close to humans, and to perform tricks leading to mental and physical suffering and leading to numerous incidents of tigers injuring tourists

Tigers are emotionally complex, intelligent and wide-ranging animals and many captive facilities with their space limitations and commercial considerations cannot provide the environment necessary to allow them to express their natural behaviours and to meet their diverse physical, social, behavioural and psychological needs.

Tiger conservation

There are now more tigers in captivity than there are in the wild. The WWF estimates that there are approximately 5,000 captive tigers in the USA alone, and less than 3,900 tigers in the wild. Over 97% of our wild tigers have been lost in the last 1,000 years. Thanks to recent conservation efforts the numbers of wild tigers are slowly increasing, although all of the subspecies are still listed as Endangered or Critically Endangered. 

Tigers are under threat for several reasons. Today, only 7% of their original range remains due to the impact of human agriculture, settlements, roads and logging. This has had a disastrous effect on tigers, and it has meant that tigers and humans are increasingly coming into conflict. 

Poaching presents another major threat. There is a demand for tiger parts for various medicines and tonics, although there is no evidence that they have any effect. Tiger skins are also popular as a status symbol. This cruel trade has had a devastating effect on tigers in the wild, and has led to the development of tiger farms, where tigers are farmed for their parts.

Read more

Why wild animals can never humanely be used as photo props

What big cat play can teach us about morality

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