The Caspian tiger (or the Turanian tiger) (Panthera tigris virgata) was officially recognised as a subspecies of tiger in 1981. According to the IUCN, the last individual was observed in the wild in the early 1970s and there are no specimens in captivity.
It is believed that the Caspian tiger lived in countries on the western and eastern edges of the Caspian Sea, such as Turkey, northern Iran and perhaps part of Afghanistan; and in central Asia, including areas of the Taklamakan Desert in the autonomous Xinjiang Uyghur region in the north-east of China. It shared it’s habitat with its prey, for example deer, gazelles, and mouflons, and also with other predators including jackals, wolves, cheetahs and panthers.
Its extinction is due to the hunting of tigers and their prey; the destruction of their natural habitat – which is converted and used for intensive farming; and to the extreme vulnerability of the small populations that were more susceptible to such threats. Its decline coincided, in particular, with the advance of Russian colonisation.
Indeed, at the close of the 19th century, the government ordered the extermination of all tigers, to encourage people to move and inhabit the areas that had been colonised. This vast region composed of forests near areas of water, whose watercourses reached into semi-arid steppe areas, was destroyed to make way for intensive agriculture, with significant impact on the survival of the feline and its prey.
In 1947 the Russian government outlawed the hunting of the Caspian tiger and its closest relative, the Amur tiger. However, it was too late for the Caspian tiger. In 2003 the IUCN determined the subspecies to be definitively extinct. Nevertheless, recent genetic studies on their skins have shown a close proximity to the Amur tiger, and this subspecies could be used as stock to reintroduce tigers to the Caspian tiger’s former range.
Finally, during the 20th century, two other subspecies of tiger suffered the same sad destiny and disappeared: the Javan tiger and the Bali tiger. The six subspecies that are still present in their natural habitats risk succumbing to the same fate, and will do soon, if conservation efforts aren’t quickly and significantly reinforced.
Caspian tiger / 1899 ©Berlin Zoo