Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Last Caspian Tiger

Drawing: Caspian Tiger


The Caspian tiger, Panthera tigris virgata, which once ranged in Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey, Mongolia, and the Central Asiatic area of the USSR probably became extinct in the 1970s, one of the last confirmed sightings being in Kegeli in Karakalpkstan in 1974.

Tigers were already widespread in Asia one and a half million years ago. However, recent genetic research suggests that they nearly became extinct in the late Pleistocene Era, probably about 10,000-12,000 years ago. A small remnant population survived, probably in what is now China. From this area tigers then spread out again, migrating along river valleys following their prey, mostly deer and wild pigs. Although all mainland tigers are very closely related, and may be regarded as regional populations rather than as discrete subspecies, they have developed physical or morphological adaptations to different environmental conditions.

The two varieties of tigers in the former Soviet Union represented the most easterly and westerly populations of the great cat. Amur tigers prowl the rich mixed forests in the southern Russian Far East on the Sea of Japan, while the Caspian Tiger also known as the Hyrcanian or Turanian tigers (Panthera tigris virgata) were the most westerly ranging tigers. They inhabited the basins of inland drainage of western and central Asia, wherever there was adequate prey, water and vegetation cover.

These magnificent great cats had thick, plush winter coats usually of a more reddish background colour than Amur tigers, with closer set black or sometimes brown stripes, long white belly fur and sort nape mane (beard), though their summer coats were shorter. A little smaller than their Far Eastern relatives, adult male Caspian tigers weighed 170-240 kg and measured 270-290 cm in total length.

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 Central Asia. 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 the Great Registan mosque and other public buildings in Samarkand.

Tigers in Central Asia were not usually regarded as a threat to human life and were known to co-exist with human habitation, even close to major towns such as Tashkent. But the spread of settlement, especially Russian immigration into Central Asia from the late nineteenth century, was to lead to their demise. In the early decades of the twentieth century Tsarist military detachments were used to exterminate the tigers in lowland areas, as well as leopards and wolves, ahead of human settlement. Those that came into conflict with herdsmen also met a similar fate, who regarded tigers as a threat to their livestock, including camels, horses and sheep.

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. Further human settlement and development in their habitat sealed their fate. Riverside vegetation was cleared for cultivation, and rivers tapped for irrigation water, notably for the great expansion in cotton growing from the 1930s. To try and save the species Zapovedniks or strict nature reserves were established in Soviet Central Asia but were too small to support a viable population of tigers and with increasing irrigation only a few areas of tugai vegetation survived, perhaps a tenth of the original reed beds and gallery forests.

Along the Syr Dar’ya and around Lake Balkhash the last resident tigers were sighted in the 1940s, and in the Vakhsh valley in Tajikistan the last was seen in 1961. In the foothills of the Talysh Mountains and the Lenkoran river basin in southeast Azerbaijan near the Caspian Sea the last were seen in 1964, but these were probably tigers that had migrated from the southern Caspian littoral of  neighbouring Iran; where 15-20 are believed to have survived in this region into the1960s

The last confirmed sighting of a tiger in Uzbekistan was in the Amu Darya delta. A tiger was seen in the Karakalpak town of Kegili (my wife’s hometown) some 25km north of Nukus in 1974. (In the town’s cemetery).

Photos: Caspian (top) Siberian tigers (bottom) are closely related.


There are still occasional claims of the Caspian tiger being sighted from the more remote forested areas of along the Turkmen-Uzbek-Afghan border region once a stronghold. Alas, experts have been unable to find any solid evidence to substantiate these claims and the last reliable sighting was probably at least 40 years ago. It has also been suggested that the 'tiger' sightings may actually be Persian leopards.

The ban on tiger hunting in the USSR in 1947 whilst too late to rescue the Caspian tiger, however it did help save the few surviving Amur tigers. Their stronghold remains the Sikhote-Alin range, a continuous forest as extensive as the United Kingdom. Despite poaching, their numbers increased from the 1950s to the 1980s and today seem to have stabilised. Russian Government &  nature conservation organisations are working hard to save the Amur tigers to ensure that this splendid great cat does not share the same tragic fate as those from Central Asia.

UPDATE:

New research shows that the Caspian tiger from Central Asia, which became extinct in 1970, was almost identical to the living Siberian, or Amur, tigers found in the Russian Far East today.

A team of scientists from Oxford University and the NCI Laboratory of Genomic Diversity in the USA have discovered that the Caspian Tiger and the Siberian Tiger have almost the same DNA. The tiger sub-species studied were the Caspian tiger (Panthera tigris virgata), the Siberian tiger (Panthera tigris altaica), the Indian - Bengal - tiger (Panthera tigris tigris) and the South China tiger (Panthera tigris amoyensis). The Caspian tiger was found to differ by only one nucleotide of its mitochondrial DNA from the Siberian tiger: other tiger sub-species differ by at least two nucleotides.

Carlos A. Driscoll et al. Mitochondrial Phylogeography Illuminates the Origin of the Extinct Caspian Tiger and Its Relationship to the Amur Tiger. PLoS One, Jan 14, 2009 [link]

Source: http://www.savethetigerfund.org/