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Tiger, Tiger


The tiger is India's national animal.

Scientists studying India's wildlife have learned to expect the unexpected -- from lizards that fly and elephants that swim to fish that walk and apes that sing. There are even dancing spiders. But in the INDIA: LAND OF THE TIGER, it is the world's largest cat that attracts the lion's share of the attention. Across Asia, from the chilly hillsides of southeastern Russia to the tropical forests of Sumatra, researchers estimate that fewer than 5,000 tigers roam today where up to 100,000 once lived. The largest remaining population of great orange-and-black cats is found in India. Here, up to 3,750 Bengal tigers, making up to two-thirds of the world's total tiger population, still stalk the forests and wetlands.

Unlike lions and other great cats that live in groups, tigers live and hunt alone, except when a female is rearing her cubs. Males generally occupy large territories, even up to 400 square miles in areas where prey is rare. In locales that provide more food, however, tigers may need to range over an area of only 100 square miles or fewer to find enough to eat. Once they've found a meal, however, it generally is a big one: Bengal tigers, which can weigh more than 400 pounds, can consume up to 40 pounds of meat at a single sitting. While tigers will capture a wide range of prey, from monkeys and rhino calves to domestic cattle and fish, they typically prefer deer and wild boar. They are stealthy hunters, using their striped coats as camouflage in the shadows as they creep toward their prey. They also have excellent night vision, estimated at six times better than a human's, that allow them to hunt effectively at night. When they get close enough to their prey, tigers go for the kill with a final powerful pounce, ending the struggle with a single bite to the throat. But nine times out of ten, as INDIA: LAND OF THE TIGER shows, a hunting tiger will meet with failure.

Though there are few studies of how long tigers live in the wild, researchers believe they can survive 15 years or more. Females generally breed after their third birthday, and can have two or three cubs every couple of years. It can take more than two years for the playful young cubs, which are born blind and helpless, to learn to hunt on their own. Once, baby tigers had little to fear once they reached adulthood. Today, however, tigers are threatened both by habitat destruction and hunting. Tiger cubs are born blind and totally dependent on their mothers.Every year, poachers kill hundreds of tigers for their skin and bones, which many Asians believe carry healing qualities when added to traditional medicines. Though trafficking in wildlife products is banned in India, tiger remains are still smuggled out of the country. According to the Wildlife Protection Society of India, much of the trade is conducted across the Indo-Tibetan and Nepal-Tibetan borders. Often, nomadic tribesman use yak caravans to smuggle the tiger products across remote Himalayan passes into Tibet.

"Since 1989, official government records indicate that India has lost nearly 1,500 tigers," mourns Valmik Thapar, INDIA: LAND OF THE TIGER  host and vice-chair of the International Union for the Conservation of Natures (IUCN) Cat Specialist Group. "The crisis is at a critical point. Will we be able to slow down this decline? I believe that if we can win some battles to save the tiger, India will have around 500 tigers in about 12 protected areas in 2010. If we fail to win some of today's battles, tigers will be virtually extinct by the time of the next Year of the Tiger," in 2010.

The tiger isn't India's only endangered animal, however. The IUCN estimates that India is home to at least 175 other threatened species, including the Asiatic lion, Indian elephant, Asiatic wild ass, and Indian rhinoceros -- natural treasures all featured in INDIA: LAND OF THE TIGER. Some smaller rare wild jewels are also on display in INDIA: LAND OF THE TIGER. For instance, viewers are treated to stunning footage of the colorful jumping spiders of Sri Lanka's wet forests, which communicate using carefully choreographed dancing displays. They also have exceptional vision: eight eyes allow them to detect motion more than 20 body lengths away.

In India's own wet forests, the black-and-orange flying, or draco, lizard has its own amazing abilities. These remarkable reptiles can spread their bright wing membranes, which stretch along more than half of their body, and soar 40 feet or more from tree to tree. They typically touch the ground only to breed.

Not surprisingly, in a land of lizards that fly, there are also fish that walk. In India's desert, climbing perch can survive more than a day out of the water. Using spikes on their bony gill covers, they can crawl pool to pool as their watery homes dry up in the heat of summer. The mudskipper, a fish that lives in the mangrove swamps along India's coast, uses a similar strategy to move around, flipping across the mud and climbing trees to escape the pull of the tides. In India's northern forests, there are even apes that sing.


The Hoolock, or "singing," gibbon.

Hoolock gibbons, India's only ape, mate for life and defend their territories with whistling songs that echo through the forests in the early mornings, giving rise to their nickname of the "singing ape."

Even these surprising animals, however, cannot eclipse the extraordinary sight of swimming elephants. In India's western islands, elephants were imported to serve as beasts of burden. However, to commute from workplace to workplace, the huge animals must swim up to a mile through bright tropical seas, using their trunks as snorkels. Baby elephants are able to rest on their mothers' flanks during the long paddles. In the waters below these swimming behemoths, there are other remarkable sights to be seen, from colonies of garden eels swaying in the currents to spectacular coral reefs alive with flashing fish. A close look reveals that some of them have formed interesting alliances. For example, the bright gobie, a small barrel-shaped fish, serves as a lookout for prawns, a kind of large shrimp. The gobies perch at the edge of their sandy burrows, warning the almost sightless prawns when danger approaches. The two partners then retreat into the burrow. The prawn earns its keep by shoveling sand out of the gobie's burrow, in the process stirring up a snack for the hungry fish.

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