Caspian Tiger

The Caspian tiger or Persian tiger (Panthera tigris virgata) was the westernmost subspecies of tiger, found in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Turkey, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Caucasus, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan until it apparently became extinct in the late 1950s, though there have been several alleged sightings of the tiger.

When extant, the Caspian tiger was the third largest of the known subspecies of tigers. The body of this subspecies was quite stocky and elongated with strong legs, large, wide paws, and unusually large claws. The ears were short and small, and gave the appearance of being without hair on the tips. Around the cheeks, the Caspian tiger was generously furred and the rest of its fur was long and thick. The coloration resembled that of the Bengal Tiger. The skin specimen in the British Museum has a yellow-gold color over the back and flanks, while the sides of the body are lighter than the back and the striping also varies from light to dark brown. The chest and abdomen is white with yellow stripes, while the facial area is yellow with brown stripes on the forehead and obvious white patches around the eyes and cheeks. Outer portions of the legs are yellow and the inner areas white. The tail of this subspecies is yellow and has yellowish white stripes. In winter, the hair of the Caspian tiger was very long, and the tiger had a well-developed belly mane and a short nape mane. Male Caspian tigers were very large and weighed 169-240 kg. Females were not as large, weighing 85-135 kg.

Work with the preserved remains of the Caspian tiger has shown that it shares a comparatively recent common history with the Siberian tiger (P. t. altaica), at least when it comes to maternal or mitochondrial lineages. It appears that tigers colonized Central Asia at most 10,000 years ago, and the modern Siberian stock may be the result of a few Caspian tigers subsequently wandering east via North Asia.

History and extinction
Until the 19th century, Caspian tigers still inhabited wide spaces of Western and Central Asia. In the mid-1800s, Caspian tigers were killed 180 km northeast of Atbasar, Kazakhstan and near Barnaul, Russia (Ognev 1935, Mazák 1981). The only reported Caspian tiger from Iraq was killed near Mosul in 1887 (Kock 1990). In 1899, the last Caspian tiger near the Lop Nur basin in Xinjiang, China, was killed (Ognev 1935). Caspian tigers disappeared from the Tarim River basin in Xinjiang, China, by the 1920s. (Nowell & Jackson 1996) In 1922, the last known tiger in the Caucasus region was killed near Tbilisi, Georgia, after killing domestic livestock (Ognev 1935). The last record of the Caspian tiger on the Ili River, their last stronghold in the region of Lake Balkhash, Kazakhstan, dates to 1948. (Nowell & Jackson 1996)

The Russian government had worked heavily to eradicate the Caspian tiger during planning a huge land reclamation program in the beginning of the 20th century. They considered there was no room for the tiger in their plans and so instructed the Russian army to exterminate all tigers found around the area of the Caspian Sea, a project that was carried out very efficiently. Once the extermination of the Caspian tiger was almost complete, the farmers cleared forests and planted crops like rice and cotton. Due to intensive hunting and deforestation, the Caspian tiger retreated first from the lush lowlands to the forested ranges, then to the marshes around some of the larger rivers, and finally, deeper into the mountains, until it almost certainly became extinct. In 1938, national park Tigrovaya Balka was opened in Tajik SSR to save Riparian forests and rare animals, including Caspian Tiger, but it didn't help population of tigers. It was the last stronghold of the Caspian tiger in the Soviet Union. Tigrovaya Balka national park is situated in Tajikistan in the undercurrent of Vakhsh River between the Piandj and Kafirnighan near the border of Afghanistan. The last Caspian Tiger was seen there in 1958.

Some reports state that the last Caspian tiger was shot in Golestan National Park (Iran) or in Northern Iran in 1959 (Vuosalo 1976). However, other reports claim that the last Chinese Caspian tigers disappeared from the Manas River basin in the Tian Shan mountains, west of Ürümqi, China, in the 1960s. (Nowell & Jackson 1996) The last record from the lower reaches of the Amu Darya river near Lake Aral was an unconfirmed observation near Nukus in 1968 while tigers disappeared from the river’s lower reaches and the Pyzandh Valley once a stronghold, in the Turkmen-Uzbek-Afghan border region by the early 1970s (Heptner and Sludskii 1972). (Nowell & Jackson 1996) There are even claims of a documented killing of this subspecies at Uludere, Hakkari in Turkey during 1970 (Üstay 1990; Can 2004). Some reports even state that the final Caspian tiger was captured and killed in Northeast Afghanistan in 1997.

The most frequently quoted date is the late 1950s, but has almost no evidence to back it up. It appears this date came to be accepted after being quoted by H. Ziaie in "A Field Guide to the Mammals of Iran". Now, the most evidence reflects an even earlier date of extinction. The area of Iran that contained the last Caspian tigers was in fact the eastern region of Mazandaran, Northern Iran. According to E. Firouz in “A Guide to the Fauna of Iran, 1999”, the last tiger was killed in 1947 near Agh-Ghomish Village, 10 km East of Kalaleh, on the way to Minoodasht-Bojnoord. An exact date of extinction is unknown.

Sightings and doubts about extinction
Possible Turkish last sighting
The following excerpts are taken from "Can, O.E. 2004. Status, Conservation and Management of Large Carnivores in Turkey. Council of Europe. 29 pages. Strasbourg, France".

"Earlier in the 20th century, the presence of the Caspian tiger had been known by Turkish (Turkish Republic Official Gazette, 1937). Yet, when the Caspian tiger was declared extinct in the world, international zoologists did not accept the idea that the Caspian tiger distribution range extended as far as eastern Turkey (Dr. George Schaller, Ankara, Turkey, personal communication, 2003). In fact, the species was officially a pest species until July 11, 2004 in Turkey. In the 1970s, surveys conducted by Paul Joslin in Iran turned up no signs of the Caspian tiger and the conclusion was made that the Caspian tiger had been extirpated. International cat experts only became aware of the presence of the Caspian tiger in Turkey after a tiger was killed in Uludere, Þõrnak 1970 (Uludere was a sub-province of Hakkari in 1970). Three years later, a botanist visiting the area saw and photographed the tiger pelt and published the story (Baytop, 1974)."

Turkish scientists, during a study on the field, reached some information on the presence of the Caspian tiger.

"Within the framework of Southeastern Anatolia Biodiversity Research Project of WWF-Turkey, a survey was conducted to reveal the large mammal presence and distribution in the region (Can & Lise, 2004). Within the framework of the first attempt to collect systematically the large mammal data in Southeastern Turkey. First, a questionnaire was designed and distributed to 450 military posts in the region. The questionnaire included questions about the presence of large mammal species and each questionnaire was accompanied with Turkey's Mammal Poster of Turkish Society for the Conservation of Nature (which became WWF-Turkey later). The questionnaires were filled out by military personnel in cooperation with the local people and 428 questionnaires were returned to WWF-Turkey. The questionnaires also included questions related with the historical tiger presence in the region. Later, the questionnaire results were used to identify the areas on which the field survey will focus.

The questionnaire revealed that some military personal had heard rumors about the presence of large cats in the region. During the interviews with local people, the mammal team collected rumors about big cat sightings and met local people that claimed to hear roaring from different sites. In addition, it was reported that there was a local tiger pelt trade in the region and three to five tigers were killed in each year and the pelts were sold to rich land lords in Iraq until the mid-1980s. This confirms Turan's findings (1984,) who obtained his information from local hunters in the region. Baytop (1974) similarly reported that 1-8 tigers were killed each year in the Þõrnak region.

Considering that one to eight tigers were killed each year in Eastern Turkey until the mid 1980s, the tiger that was killed in Uludere was a young individual according to the stripe patterns. The Caspian tiger is likely to have existed in the region at least until the early 1990s. Nevertheless, due to lack of interest in addition to security and safety reasons, trained biologists had not attempted to survey in Eastern Turkey before."

While these anecdotal sightings do not prove that the Caspian tiger survived, researchers believe they should investigate this possibility seriously. An investigation was planned for sometime in 2006. No such investigation has yet been made.

Reported sightings
There are still occasional claims of the Caspian tiger being sighted, with some occurring in Afghanistan, (pug marks [tiger paw prints] have occasionally been reported), and others coming from the more remote forested areas of Turkmenistan. However, experts have been unable to find any solid evidence to substantiate these claims and the last reliable sighting was probably at least 30 years ago. It has also been suggested that the 'tiger' sightings may actually be Persian Leopards. Any hope of Caspian tigers in Afghanistan could be further dashed as war continues to rage across areas of the country.

Without photographic evidence, expert assessment of pug marks, attacks on animals or people, or a sighting by an expert authority, there is presently no good reason to believe that the Caspian Tiger still lives. Nonetheless, complete resolution of the matter will probably not be achieved until some time in the late 2000s, given the need to investigate the Turkish reports.

Caspian tiger in the Roman arenas
The Caspian tiger was the subspecies of tiger used in the Roman arenas. To Romans, this subspecies was the most accessible as it inhabited the eastern borders of the Roman Empire. They were imported from Caucasus, Mesopotamia, and Persia. The first tiger that fought in Rome was a gift from an Indian ambassador to Roman emperor Augustus in the year 19 BC. In the Roman arenas, the tiger fought against Roman Gladiators and other animals like the aurochs and the European and Barbary Lion.

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