The Caspian tiger’s (Panthera tigris virgata) story is a tragic tale. Once a dominant predator of Asia’s diverse landscapes, its disappearance testifies to the darker sides of agricultural development. And though its demographic traits distinguished it as a unique subspecies within the tiger family, those traits didn’t last long, and the cat was lost to extinction in the late 20th century.
So, why don’t we see any of these tigers in the world today?
With a wide habitat range and remarkable size, the Caspian tiger was once a majestic feline that roamed through the marshes and meadows of Central Asia.
Concentrated around the Caspian Sea and ranging from Turkey, Iran, and Kazakhstan, all the way to China, the species occupied a huge habitat of more than 350,000 square miles. Inhabiting isolated patches of wetland, the tigers settled along rivers and streams and surrounded themselves with shrubs, rush, and reeds. Typically, two to three tigers would share the same turf: areas of around 40 square miles, subject to seasonal flooding.
And what about their size? Weighing up to 530 pounds and measuring up to 10 feet from snout to tail, Caspian tigers were one of the biggest felines in the world, hunting for hours, day after day, in search of the perfect boar or deer to snack on.
Over the course of the 20th century, the population of the Caspian tiger declined, and declined dramatically. Of course, all subspecies of tiger decreased in abundance at the time, with one study stating that the world’s total tiger count fell from 100,000 in 1900 to 3,200 in 2000.
But the Caspian tiger bore the brunt of the decline.
It’s not surprising that the first factor that contributed to the Caspian tiger’s extinction was loss of habitat. This is a threat that tigers in the world today continue to face.
As widespread agriculture and irrigation projects were brought into Central Asia by the Soviet Union throughout the 20th century, the shrubs, trees, and thickets of reeds that the tigers called home were wiped away.
Making matters worse, the few tigers that survived the encroachment couldn’t find enough food to eat, as the populations of their prey of choice — wild boar and deer — also shrunk as a result of habitat destruction.
Perhaps more pernicious were the widespread exterminations of Caspian tigers by human hands. Caspian tigers were systematically hunted by military troops of the Soviet Union up until 1930. These troops laid traps and poisoned the felines for financial compensation since the creatures were seen as threats to the population. It wasn’t until 1947 that the Soviet Union put a ban on tiger hunting, but by then, a huge portion of the Caspian tiger population had already been hunted.
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In the 1950s, the international scientific community considered this tiger subspecies extinct, a disappearance attributed to loss of habitat and human hunting. Some scholars say that Caspian tigers were declared extinct earlier than they should have been, however.
This phenomenon of premature declaration is known as the Lazarus Effect. It occurs when conservationists think a species is lost or doomed and halt their efforts to conserve it, leaving the last individuals of the species to die off without protections.
“Compelling evidence suggests that Caspian tigers existed in Turkey perhaps up until the early 1990s, some 40 years after the international scientific community considered the species extinct,” writes Özgün Emre Can and a colleague in a paper published in Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution.
A biologist at Ankara University, Emre Can argues locals were still aware of the presence of Caspian tigers in the Hakkari, Siirt, Uludere, and Şırnak provinces of Turkey. “It is reasonable to posit that conservationists missed a historical opportunity to save the species,” he says.
Despite their harrowing history, however, there is some good news for tigers. In 2009, a team of researchers pored over data from the Caspian tiger’s DNA and its closest relative, the Siberian tiger and found that the two subspecies were much more similar than previously thought.
The Caspian and Siberian tigers actually constituted a single population of tigers until relatively recently. According to the researchers, the two subspecies are so closely related, that they seem to have diverged only a couple centuries ago, making them almost taxonomically synonymous.
And, while much of the traditional habitat of the Caspian tiger was destroyed over the decades, becoming inhospitable to any subspecies of tiger, whether Caspian or Siberian, there are a couple of areas in Kazakhstan where the Siberian tiger could be reintroduced, as an almost identical species. The Russian branch of World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has, in fact, launched a project to do so.
“It will take at least 15 years and will include three key stages,” says Grigory Mazmanyants, the Director of the Central Asia Programme for WWF-Russia, in a statement from the WWF.
Since 2018, the team has been preparing the habitat for welcoming the felines. Starting in 2024, researchers will release Siberian tigers into the area, and in 2033, they will shift their focus to monitoring the tigers, making sure they stay safe and healthy.
“We speak about the translocation of at least ten tigers in this period, starting with three individuals, two females and one male,” Mazmanyants says in the same statement. “The tigers will come from the Russian Far East, as DNA analysis has shown that the Amur (Siberian) tiger is the closest living relative to the Caspian tiger that once lived in Kazakhstan.”
According to the WWF, the area could support as many as 120 tigers if the organization’s simultaneous attempts at reintroducing and protecting prey species are successful. “It is the opportunity of a lifetime to be involved in such an ambitious conservation project,” Mazmanyants says in the statement. “We are not only conserving and stabilizing a situation, but we are on the counter attack in the fight to protect nature.”