Of the various tiger subspecies perhaps one of the most enigmatic is the Caspian Tiger. Caspian Tigers represented the western most distribution of these big cats until the early 1970’s. What makes these cats so mysterious is the fact that before science could properly look at them they were pushed out of extinction with a combination of habitat loss and hunting.
Caspian Tigers represent the western most expansion of the tiger species. It is generally believed that there was a traumatic event on the species that left only a small population in the east of Asia. This secondary population then spread out creating what is today the Amur (Siberian) and the Caspian subspecies of tigers. The range of the Caspian Tigers reached from central China all the way through Iran to the Mediterranean sea and Turkey. These particular tigers favored habits with plenty of water and prey, such as wild boar and Bactrian Deer. Of course the prey list for this tiger reads as anything it could bring down which includes dogs, wild asses, camels, and many other animals but only very rarely did the cats feed on man.
The physical aspects of these tigers are not very much unlike its very close cousin the Amur Tiger. The Caspian is only slightly smaller than the Amur but it does tend to have a redder background color to its coat with stripes that are more brown than black. The winter coats of these tigers were somewhat paler and much longer which is normal in this species of large cat.
Things started to turn bleak for the Caspian Tiger during the 1930’s. Though the large cat had been hunted for many years prior it wasn’t until this century that Governments of the its home territory became involved. First the tigers habitat was drained while rivers became tamed for agricultural purposes. With immigration efforts, most notably by the Soviets, there came to be a policy of sending in armed government patrols ahead of settlers to deal with the tigers. As the habitat became further fragmented small pockets of these tigers became extinct. The last Caspian Tiger in the USSR was sighted in 1960’s. Though conservation measures were taken these tigers were doomed to go extinct. A ban was enacted on tiger hunting in the USSR was put into effect in 1947 but was too late. Surprisingly in Turkey a fresh tiger skin appeared in 1972, but this is the last concrete evidence of a surviving Caspian Tiger.
Recent advances in genetics has brought the affordability of genetic studies down and allowed for many intriguing facts to be discovered. These new techniques have been used to study not only living tiger subspecies but extinct ones as well. The Caspian Tiger is of special interest. Recent studies show that the Caspian and Amur subspecies are actually one and the same. The one distinction between the two is only a single letter difference in the DNA sequence. It is theorized that the two populations only became isolated from one another only in the last century. This is probably due to the encroachment of human populations on traditional tiger territory. Since this slight variation occurs it could be quite possible to breed a tiger that is Caspian like. Another possibility could be to find an Amur-Caspian cross that occurred in a zoological preserve. But this is only a slight possibility since Tiger breeding was tricky before the advent of the modern zoo.
The lose of habitat as well as outdated practices are only harming our environment. As evidence by the sad story of the Caspian Tiger no one can take for granted these majestic creatures. Some day the world as a whole may understand this.