Yesterday I was sitting at work, checking all kinds of websites for interesting news, and stumbled upon keywords, that caught my attention – “Caspian tiger”… Interesting stuff about the “big cat” most people dont even know.
The Caspian tiger’, also known as the Persian tiger, Turanian tiger, Mazandaran tiger or Hyrcanian tiger was found in Iran, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Turkey, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan until it apparently became extinct in the late 1950s, though there have been several alleged sightings of the tiger in the more recent years. First thought to have been its own distinct subspecies, genetic research in 2009 proved that the animal was closely related to the Siberian tiger. Separated by only one letter of genetic code, it is believed that the two split off from each other only in the past century. Some researchers suggest that it may be possible to reintroduce the closely related Siberian Tiger to the Caspian tiger’s historical range in hopes of recreating this now-extinct big cat.
Some sources claim, that the extraordinary Caspian Tiger became extinct over 40-years ago. Through modern genetic analysis it has been discovered the Caspian Tiger and the Siberian or Amur Tiger still in existence are separated by only one letter of genetic code.
The Caspian Tiger,(Panthera tigris virgata) genetic roots span over a million years. A nearly cataclysmic event during the late Pleistocene Era, some 10,000 to 12,000 years ago nearly wiped out all tigers. Fortunately, a small remnant of tigers survived. In 2004 scientists revised the known classification to five tiger subspecies from eight previously identified.
The Caspian Tiger and the Amur or Siberian Tiger began in China and spread westward along the Silk Road. Sometime later these magnificent tigers expanded their territory by moving northward and eastward into what is known as the former Soviet Union. Researchers believe that sometime in the early 1900s the Caspian and Siberian tigers intermingled, but were subsequently isolated by hunters.
The two majestic Russian cats, the Siberian and Caspian Tigers preferred slightly different terrain. The Siberian Tiger prowled the rich mix forest in the southern Russian Far East region on the Sea of Japan. While the Caspian Tiger inhabited the inland drainage basins of Western and Eastern Asia among the reeds and waterways hunting their prey hidden by lush vegetation.
The Caspian Tiger was an exquisite specimen in appearance and size, weighing in a range of 375-530 pounds with an average body length of nearly 10-feet. During the Winter the Caspian Tiger had a lush, thick reddish coat with black or brown stripes set in a close pattern with a silky haired white belly and a beard. The word that best describes the Caspian Tiger, is formidable.
The Caspian tiger’s unique habitat was the seasonally flooded tugai vegetation growing along the great rivers that flow from high mountains and traverse deserts, or around lakes. Tall, dense reed beds grow along the riverside fringed by gallery forests of poplar and willow. These give way to tamarisk shrubs, saxaul and other salt resistant plants on the desert edge. In this dense undergrowth the tigers sometimes stood on their hind legs to obtain a better view. Tigers and their prey, such as Bukhara red deer, roe deer, goitred gazelles and especially wild pigs, had a restricted range in these bands of tugai vegetation and were vulnerable to human disturbance and habitat destruction as these valleys were avenues for agricultural settlement by people.
The tiger played an important part in the culture of the people of southwest Asia. The Tigris River was named after the tiger that in legend carried a pregnant princess across the turbulent river on his back. On the other side she gave birth and so the tiger was associated with the fertility of the river. Usually living creatures are not represented in Islamic art, but in Sufism, one of the branches of Islam, the tiger’s image is represented on carpets and textiles and can be seen on the facades of mosques and other public buildings in Samarkand, Uzbekistan.
In Russian Central Asia in the early decades of the twentieth century military detachments were used to exterminate the tigers, as well as leopards and wolves, ahead of human settlement. Herdsmen regarded tigers as a threat to their livestock, including camels, horses and sheep. As their fine pelts were valuable they were killed by strychnine poison and steel traps, and large bounties were paid for their destruction. Soon the ribbons or bands of tiger habitat were broken up by the spread of human settlement and tiger populations diminished and became more fragmented: bands became spots on the map of Caspian tiger distribution.
Zapovedniks or strict nature reserves established in Soviet Central Asia were too small to support a viable population of tigers and only a few areas of tugai vegetation have survived, perhaps a tenth of the original reed beds and gallery forests.
Their extent may now have stabilised but the tigers have gone. The Caspian tigers’ extermination in Soviet Central Asia was linked to the general environmental destruction that has affected the human inhabitants adversely. The drive by a command economy since the 1930s to concentrate on cotton growing had dire results for people and for tigers. Demands for irrigation water seriously damaged the fragile ecosystem of the region, resulting in a 50% reduction in the area of the Aral Sea and widespread salinity of the soils.
Probably the last Caspian tigers seen in the USSR were in the foothills of the Talysh Mountains and the Lenkoran river basin in southeast Azerbaijan near the Caspian Sea in 1964, but these were probably tigers that had migrated from neighboring Iran. There, in the southern Caspian littoral of Iran, tigers had once been numerous, and 15-20 may have survived in this region in the1960s. The last tiger reported shot in Iran was in 1957, but a few may have lingered there into the 1970s. The clearing of reed beds and lowland forests on the southern shores of the Caspian Sea—part of the anti-malarial programmes in the 1950s and 1960s—made human settlement easier and deprived the tiger of its habitat.
Unfortunately, the riverside vegetation was cleared for cultivation and in-habitation, thus the Caspian Tiger was deprived of its habitat and its prey in the 1930s. Cotton fields were planted and the rivers were used for irrigation. Soon, the Caspian Tiger became an alien in its own territory and was targeted and hunted down as a menace to human settlements and a threat to livestock. The Caspian Tiger pelt was prized for its beauty and fetched a hefty price. A further environmental insult occurred when the river vegetation and reeds were cleared to eradicate malaria on the Southern shores of the Caspian Sea in the 1950s and 1960s. The last reported Caspian Tiger sighting happened in the 1960s and 1970s.
Russian and international conservation groups banned tiger hunting in 1947, but it was too late for the Caspian Tiger to make a recovery. Poaching and contributing factors wiped out the majestic cat. Conservation efforts did help to protect and stabilize the Siberian Tiger. Fortunately, the subspecies commingling in the distant past will allow the Caspian Tiger to once again take its rightful place in the family tree of tigers.