There are generally considered to be eight subspecies of tiger (Panthera tigris), three of which are now extinct.  The remaining subspecies include the Bengal, Indo-Chinese, South China, Amur, and Sumatran tigers.  Pressures from illegal killing, a shrinking food supply, and habitat loss led to the extinction of the Bali, Javan, and Caspian subspecies, and continue to threaten the survival of the remaining subspecies.

Tigers live in a variety of habitats from the temperate forests of the Russian Far East, to the mangrove swamps of the Sunderbans of Bangladesh and western India, to the tropical forests, grasslands, and marshes of India and Indonesia.  Historically, they were also found near the Caspian Sea in Turkey and Iran, and on the islands of Bali and Java in Indonesia.


Sumatran tiger at Smithsonian National Zoo
Credit: USFWS

By some estimates, a century ago 50,000 to 80,000 tigers roamed India alone.  Today, the tiger is classified as Endangered in the Red List of Threatened Species published by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and it is estimated that there are only 3,500 tigers remaining in the wild worldwide.

Until it was banned, trophy hunting and a market for tiger rugs and coats threatened the tiger’s survival.  Today, habitat destruction, human population growth, and a demand for tiger parts threaten the tiger’s survival.  In some cultures, tiger parts are thought to cure diseases such as rheumatism, convulsions, typhoid fever, and dysentery.  Tiger bone used in these traditional medicines sells for as much as $75 to $115 per pound. 

In the Russian Far East, logging threatens the Amur tiger’s already shrinking habitat. Poaching has also increased since the international borders between Russia and its neighbors opened.  

Laws & Regulations

The tiger is protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), an agreement among 175 nations to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival.  The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) is the federal agency responsible for the U.S. Government’s implementation of CITES.

In addition, all tiger species are listed as Endangered species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA), prohibiting the import of tiger parts and products into the United States except under certain conditions.

The Service, through the Rhinoceros and Tiger Conservation Act, supports conservation efforts of tigers in its range countries. This legislation, passed in 1994, established the Rhinoceros and Tiger Conservation Fund, which provides funding and technical assistance to support resource management, research, and education.

Even in areas where the tiger is now extinct, it lives on in myths, legends, and rituals.  Tigers may never be as numerous as they were a century ago, but perhaps we can learn to respect and protect them before it is too late.