Caspian Tiger

A captive Caspian Tiger, Berlin Zoo 1899
The Caspian tiger, also known as the Persian tiger, Turanian tiger, Mazandaran tiger[1] or Hyrcanian tiger[2] was found in Iran, Caucasus (Armenia), Iraq, Afghanistan, Turkey, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan until it apparently became extinct in the late 1950s, though there have been several alleged sightings of the tiger in the more recent years.[3] First thought to have been its own distinct subspecies, genetic research in 2009 proved that the animal was closely related to the Siberian tiger (P. t. altaica).[4] Separated by only one letter of genetic code, it is believed that the two split off from each other only in the past century. Some researchers suggest that it may be possible to reintroduce the closely related Siberian Tiger to the Caspian tiger's historical range in hopes of recreating this now-extinct big cat.


Color-enhanced photo of the captive specimen in the Berlin Zoo, 1899


.The Caspian tiger's body was generally less massive than that of its Far Eastern cousins, and its average size slightly less. In Turkestan, male tigers exceeded 200 cm in length, though an estimated body length of 270 cm was recorded. Females were smaller in size, normally ranging between 160–180 cm. The maximum known weight was 240 kg. Maximum skull length in males was 297.0-365.8 mm, while that of females was 195.7-255.5 mm. Although tigers from Turkestan never reached the size of the Siberian tiger, there are records of very large individuals of the former population. On January 10, 1954, a tiger killed on the Sumbar in Kopet-Dag had a skull length of 385 mm, which is considerably more than the known maximum for this population and slightly exceeds that of most Far Eastern tigers,[5] though tigers in Manchuria have been recorded as having larger skulls of 406 mm in length.[6]


The main background colour of its pelage varied, though generally, it was brighter and more uniform than that of Far Eastern tigers. The stripes were narrower, fuller and more closely set than those of the Siberian tiger. The colour of its stripes were a mixture of brown or cinnamon shades. Pure black patterns were invariably found only on the head, neck, the middle of the back and at the tip of the tail. Angular patterns at the base of the tail were less developed than those of the Far Eastern populations. The contrast between the summer and winter coats was sharp, though not to the same extent as in Far Eastern populations. The winter coat was paler, with less distinct patterns. The summer coat had a similar density and hair length to that of the Bengal tiger, though its stripes were usually narrower, longer and closer set.[5]


In the southeast Trans-Caucasus, the Caspian tiger was mostly confined to the forests of the Talysh lowlands in areas where streams and reed thickets along marine lagoons were adjacent. In Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, the tiger favored river and lake basins, densely grown reeds, plume grass or tugai forests consisting of poplar, oleaster and willow. The Caspian tiger was sometimes encountered in montane belts, in summer ascending up to the permanent snowling in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Tigers were captured in fir and juniper groves at heights of 2,500-3,000 meters above sea level in Kygryz, Trans-Ili and Dzhunarsk Alatau mountains. Generally, the Caspian tiger thrived in areas with an abundance of wild boar and Bactrian deer, large water supplies, dense thickets and low snow cover.[5]


In the southeast Trans-Caucasus, the Caspian tiger's main prey was wild boar, though it occasionally fed on roe deer, red deer and domestic animals such as dogs and cattle in winter. Tigers in Iran ate the same species with the addition of gazelle. The Caspian tiger's prey in Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan was primarily boar, as well as Bactrian deer. In the lower Amu-Darya River, tigers sometimes preyed on jackals, jungle cats and locusts. On the Zhana-Darya and around the Aral Sea in Kazakhstan, as well as boar, the tiger fed on saiga, goitered gazelle, wild horses, Mongolian Wild Ass and mountain sheep. In Tajikistan and other regions of central Asia, as well as Kazakhstan, tigers frequently attacked dogs, horses and rarely camels. In Baikal, the Caspian tiger fed on wild boar, roe deer, Manchurian wapiti, moose and livestock. Like the Siberian tiger, the Caspian tiger rarely became a man-eater, unlike the Bengal tiger.[5]


New genetic analysis revealed that the extinct Caspian tiger lives on in the Siberian Tiger (Panthera tigris altaica). Researchers from the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom collected tissue samples from 20 Caspian tiger specimens kept in museums across Eurasia. Afterwards, researchers from the U.S. National Cancer Institute (NCI) Laboratory of Genomic Diversity in Frederick, Maryland, sequenced parts of five mitochondrial genes. The Caspian Tiger's mitochondrial DNA is only one letter of genetic code separated from Siberian Tiger DNA, while it is readily distinguishable from the DNA of other tiger subspecies. This indicates that the Caspian and the Siberian subspecies are really one. The scientists have concluded that the two are so similar because both were descended from the same migrating ancestor. The ancestor colonized Central Asia via the narrow Gansu Corridor (Silk Road) from eastern China. The researchers suggest that through the early 1900s, Caspian and Siberian tiger populations intermingled, but hunters subsequently isolated the two groups. This resulted in the Siberian population splitting off from the Caspian population only in the past century.[4]

History and possible extinction

Illustration of two Caspian tigers.
Original distribution of the Caspian tiger
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 as far North as 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 the 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.[7]
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.
According to unanimous scientific opinion, the Caspian tiger, as a distinct population has been extinguished irreversibly. According to the confirmed official data and supported by the scientific researches (Hepter and Slutskiy, 1972)during 1900-1968 there were 9 tigers killed in Kopet Dag Mountains. According to scientists (Dement'yev and Rustamov) the last tiger was killed on 10 January 1954 at surrundings of Kone-Kosir in the valley of Sumbar River in Kopet Dag Mountains.[8]

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, Şırnak 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 personnel 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.

Russia-Iran Re-population project

Iranian and Russian ecologists are planning a joint project intended to return Caspian Tigers and Asiatic Cheetahs to the wild in the Central Asian region, as the latest genetic studies have shown that the amur tiger is related and virtually identical to the now extinct Caspian Tigers; hence the Russians want to offer it to Iran to repopulated its former range in northern Iran in exchange for critically endangered Asiatic Cheetahs that Russia wants to acquire from Iran to repopulate the northern Caucasus region of central Asia. However, although there are many more Amur Tigers in the wild than the tiny numbers of surviving Asiatic cheetahs, and while there is a healthy population of amur tiger in the captive breeding program in the zoos[9][10] there is no captive breeding population of the Asiatic Cheetah in any zoo.[4][11] While discussing the prospects of reintroducing the cheetah in India the cheetah experts from the world over have already warned that no individuals from the critically low Asiatic cheetah population in Iran should be withdrawn at this stage for any reintroduction experiment elsewhere, like the one proposed by Russia in exchange for the more abundant Russian Tiger, as the limited gene pool of Asiatic cheetah in Iran will suffer a tremendous blow.[12]


  1. Iran Daily. Mazandaran Tiger, Yellow Deer Revived. Jun 25, 2009, Retrieved: 21 August 2009.
  2. Tiger Territory. Retrieved: 21 August 2009.
  3.  "The Caspian Tiger at". Retrieved 12 October 2007. 
  4. Mitochondrial Phylogeography Illuminates the Origin of the Extinct Caspian Tiger and Its Relationship to the Amur Tiger
  5. V.G Heptner & A.A. Sludskii. Mammals of the Soviet Union, Volume II, Part 2. ISBN 9004088768. 
  6.  Seidensticker, John (1999). Riding the Tiger. Tiger Conservation in Human-dominated Landscapes. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521648351. 
  8.  The Red Data Book of Turkmenistan (in 2 volumes), “Turkmenistan” Publishing House 1985, Ashgabat, O. Kuliyev str, 31., copyrighted by the Ministry of Forest of TSSR, 1985. Copy published 15,000. Price: 6 soviet rubles and 60 kopeeks. Published at Moscow Typography no. 5, Soyuzpoligrafprom under State committee of USSR on publishing issues (po delam izdatel’stv, poligrafii I knijnoy torgovli). 129243, Moscow, Malo-Moskowskaya, 21. Order (zakaz) №2185. Additional info: UDK 591.5
  9.  Amur tigers on 'genetic brink'; Matt Walker; 2 July 2009; Editor, Earth News, BBC
  10.  In situ population structure and ex situ representation of the endangered Amur tiger; Authors: P. HENRY*, D. MIQUELLE†, T. SUGIMOTO‡, D. R. McCULLOUGH§, A. CACCONE¶ and M. A. RUSSELLO* *Department of Biology and Centre for Species at Risk and Habitat Studies, University of British Columbia Okanagan, 3333 University Way, Kelowna, BC, Canada V1V 1V7, †Russian Far East Program, Wildlife Conservation Society, 2300 Southern Boulevard, New York, NY 10460, USA, ‡Graduate School of Environmental Earth Science, Hokkaido University, N10W5 Sapporo, Hokkaido 060-0810, Japan, §Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management and Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, University of California, Berkeley, CA 94720, USA, ¶Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Yale University, 21 Sachem Street, New Haven, CT 06520, USA. Published Online: 23 Jun 2009; Molecular Ecology, Volume 18 Issue 15, Pages 3173 - 3184
  11.  Iran, Russia Hope to Revive Extinct Big Cats Asiatiac Cheetah and Caspian Tiger; Source: Press TV; 09 january 2010; Payvand Iran News
  12.  Experts eye African cheetahs for reintroduction, to submit plan; ICT by IANS; September 11th, 2009; THAILAND NEWS; A news portal for Indians in Thailand. See also at sulekha news [1], [2], Iran warned against cheetah transfer (to India); 05 Apr 2010; Press TV Iran, Iran warned against cheetah transfer (to India); 05 Apr 2010; Emirates tribune, Iran warned against cheetah transfer (to India); 05 Apr 2010; Iran Daily

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