Fast Fact Attack: Endangered Species No. 38 – The Bengal Tiger

Bengal tiger

Photography by Nikolay Tonev

One of the most persecuted creatures on the planet,  the Bengal tiger is also one of the most beautiful.  But greed and misguided myths are pushing the species to the brink of extinction.  Notwithstanding, it is still the most numerous tiger sub-species.

The Bengal tiger is a powerful killing machine.  One reported kill demonstrated this power when a Bengal took down, killed and dragged away a gaur  –  the largest living bovine.  These beasts weigh over a ton, so that’s quite some feat.  Bengals, like other tigers, hunt at night, killing their prey by severing the spinal cord, via a bite to the nape of the neck, or suffocating the prey by a bite to the throat.  Death is usually quick and painless.  Once dead, the prey is dragged to cover for consumption.  Tigers can gorge their way through sixty pounds of meat in one go.  If any is left, they cover the kill and save it for later.  Not known for their efficiency in hunting, they need to get as much down as possible before the next meal, which may elude them for several days.  They also have the longest canine teeth of any extant big cat, three to four inches.

They are swift runners, excellent swimmers, hugely successful climbers and can leap great distances of over thirty feet.  Like domestic cats, they purr.  Purring can either denote happiness or pain.  Their almighty roar can be heard over a distance of two miles, allowing for communication with other tigers.

The largest of all living cats, there is no doubt these animals are a considerable size.  The male of the species can grow to ten feet in length and weigh up to six hundred and fifty pounds.  The females are slightly smaller and less heavy.  The unique appearance makes the tiger instantly recognisable. It has an orange coat with black stripes (no two have exactly the same stripes) and white patches on the face and neck with a white underside.

There is no specific mating season for tigers, it’s an all year round event, but November to April seems quite popular. The gestation period is one hundred and three days, after which a litter of up to six cubs are born.  Sadly, there is a very high mortality rate within the first year of their lives.  Those that do make it will stay with their mothers until they are about eighteen months old.

Both tropical and subtropical rainforests, deciduous forests and scrub forests, alluvial grasslands and mangroves.
Most are found in India with lesser populations in Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, China and Myanmar.
What they eat
Larger prey such as deer and wild cattle, and smaller hoofed prey including antelope, wild pigs and boar.  Though not strictly part of their natural diet, they have also been known to eat humans.
Poaching:  The tiger has been slaughtered for centuries because, according to the tenets of Chinese medicine, their bones and other parts have extensive healing properties.  As a result they are in high demand.  Skins are traded on the black market and fetch a considerable amount, as do the body parts.   Habitat loss due to illegal logging and plantations building is also playing a large part in their dwindling numbers.  Human/tiger conflict arises frequently.
Status: Endangered

The Bengal tiger (Panthera tigris tigris) is listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as Endangered, and on  Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora  (CITES).   In the 1970s game reserves were created.  These worked well for a short period of time and numbers became more stable. But, the potential profit involved in poaching is so great, it took hold once more, putting the Bengal at risk again.  Unless extensive and robust support is put in place, this species will no longer survive in the wild.   The World Bank is currently, amongst others, addressing this and making a significant contribution to the future of tigers in general.

“The first law of ecology is that everything is related to everything else”
Barry Commoner

Recommended reading:   As Tigers Near Extinction, a Last-ditch Strategy Emerges

Fast Fact Attack: Endangered Species No. 27 – The Chinese Pangolin

Chinese Pangolin

Photo: Jason Chin

Conservationists fear these endearing,  armour-plated little  ‘scaly anteaters’  may be overlooked because they are not quite as cute as some of the animals on the list.  But,  I think they are adorable  –  Just my opinion, of course!  

I also love the way they curl up into a ball when asleep or threatened.  In fact,  their name, pangolin,  comes from the Malay word, pen gguling,  meaning “something that rolls up”.

Their bodies are covered in scales;  only the underside,  face and throat are left exposed. Once a means of protection,  these scales are now causing the rapid decline in numbers of this amazing animal.

Another great feature is their prehensile tails which they can wrap around branches and hang upside-down with,  like monkeys.  They have thin,  sticky tongues,  longer than their bodies,  which they use to gouge out termites.  In fact,  these wonderful animals are highly adapted to their environment.

On the down side,  they are slow movers,  short-sighted,  hard of hearing,  have small heads and narrow mouths.  And,  to cap it all,  they have no teeth.  But,  they do have a great sense of smell.  In the absence of teeth,  the food is ground up in their stomachs with the help of the grit,  sand and tiny stones the pangolin eats.   Because of the very long claws on their front feet, they are often seen walking upright.   They can even swim and climb trees.  Aren’t they phenomenal!

Subtropical, tropical, deciduous, evergreen and bamboo forests; grasslands and agricultural land.
Provinces of China south of the Yangtze river, Taiwan, Hong Kong, northern India, Vietnam, Nepal, Bangladesh and the Lao PDR.
What they eat
Ants and termites
The major threat to these animals is human consumption.  The facts are truly shocking.  They are being hunted and killed  in astonishing numbers.  Somewhere between 90 and 180 thousand have been slaughtered for the Chinese market in the past four years.   Pangolin meat is considered a delicacy in most parts of China  –  unbelievably,  even the foetus is consumed.  The scales,  which are made of keratin,  are sold for medicinal purposes.  The supposed cures they bring about beggar belief (cancer, weight loss and enhanced lactation in breast-feeding, are just a few).  Large cats,  such as tigers and leopards,  have also been known to prey upon them,  but,  somehow,  this seems to pale into insignificance compared to the devastation being wreaked upon the species by humans.
Status: Endangered

The Chinese Pangolin  (Manis pentadactyla)  is being eaten into extinction.  These incredible creatures now need all the help they can get from us  (ironic considering we are their greatest predator!).  The species has now been listed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as Endangered.  In 2012 the IUCN created the Pangolin Specialist Group to  “collaborate researchers and conservationists in developing techniques of conserving pangolin and directly combating the illegal trade”.  This seems to be the only way forward.

“We should remember in our dealings with animals that they are a sacred trust to us…they cannot speak for themselves.”
Harriet Beecher Stowe

Fast Fact Attack: Endangered Species No. 26 – The Fishing Cat

Fishing cat

Photograph: Mathieu Ourioux

These cats not only like water,  they spend a great deal of their time either beside it or diving beneath the surface of it to catch their prey.  When wading in shallow water,  they use their paws to scoop the fish up .  When diving,  they use their teeth.

For all of this,  they possess the most remarkable two-layered coat.  The dense inner layer,  next to the skin,  provides waterproofing and all year round warmth;  the second layer,  which sprouts longer hairs  (guard hairs),  gives the cats their individual pattern.

They are nocturnal and  have stocky bodies,  short legs and tails,  round ears and relatively broad heads.  Their tails can act as rudders when swimming.  They are powerful swimmers who are equipped with partial membrane between the toes to aid movement in the water.  Unlike other cats,  their claws are not fully retractable. They have olive-green/grey fur.

The mother gives birth to two or three young after a gestation period of sixty-three days.  She raises them alone,  the male having left after mating.

Wetlands: marshes, rivers,  streams and mangrove swamps.
The Himalayan foothills in India and Nepal,  Bangladesh,  Sri Lanka,  Myanmar (Burma),  the Indonesian Islands of Sumatra and Java,  Vietnam,  Thailand and the Indus Valley in Pakistan.  Though widespread,  the fishing cat favours  only parts where wetlands are found.
What they eat
These cats are certainly not the pickiest of eaters.  Though primarily they feast on fish, they are not averse to nibbling on others’  left overs,  including tiger scraps,  and are quite able to kill and devour chickens,  dogs,  frogs,  cats,  rodents,  wild pig,  goats and calves.
The greatest threat is man.  His increasing settlement,  degradation and conversion of the wetlands,  and his drainage systems for agriculture,  have all led to extreme loss of habitat.   Over-exploitation of  fish stocks is also threatening fishing cat numbers.   And, they are  hunted for food,  medicine,  skins and body parts.   On top of all this,  they are often persecuted for preying on domestic livestock.
Status: Endangered

The fishing cat  (Prionailurus viverrinus),   is classified as Endangered on the IUCN Red List.   The species is also protected by national legislation  in most,  but not all,   of the countries it inhabits. But,  legal protection is difficult to enforce and poaching continues.   Wetland destruction and degradation is the primary threat faced by the species.  Captive breeding programmes have been established and habitat loss is being addressed.

“The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe, the less taste we shall have for destruction.”
Rachel Carson