Although critically endangered, wild tigers still prowl the border of India and Bangladesh — one of the most densely populated places on earth; the western Terai of India and Nepal; the untamed borderlands of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia; and the vast boreal forests of the Russian Far East.
How many roam is the million dollar question.
"Estimating the number of tigers in a population has always been a contentious issue," says John Seidensticker, chairman of the Save the Tiger Fund Council, and senior scientist at the National Zoological Park, Smithsonian Institution. "Estimates provided by range countries are, in most cases, based on nothing more than optimism."
One thing for sure is that a century ago there were eight subspecies of tiger, all native to Asia. Now there are only five: The 1980s saw the last of the fearsome Javan tiger, a 250-pound animal that could take down 2,000-pound bulls. The Caspian tiger went extinct in the 1970s. And the last Bali tiger probably died in the 1940s.
South China Tiger (Panthera tigris amoyensis)
The rarest of the world's remaining five subspecies of tigers, recently declared extinct in the wild.
DESCRIPTION: A sleek cat, the adult male averages 8-foot-3-inches tip to tail and just about 300 pounds. It's the only tiger that lives wholly within China's borders. As a subject of Chinese art and literature for 2,000 years, it is revered as a symbol of strength and power as well as the living spirit of the nation's sacred mountains.
Amur Tiger (Panthera tigris altaica)
DESCRIPTION: Also known as the Siberian or Manchurian tiger, the Amur is the largest of the great cats. The least striped of all the subspecies. Males measure 8-feet-10-inches to 10-feet-10-inches long and weigh 419 to 675 pounds; females average 7-feet-11-inches to 9-feet long and weigh 221 to 368 pounds.
Bengal Tiger (Panthera t. tigris)
DESCRIPTION: Males weigh in at 396 to 569 pounds and measure 8-feet-11-inches to 10-feet-2-inches long. Females weigh 220 to 352 pounds and range from 7-foot-10-inches to 8-foot-9-inches long. The underside of the Bengal is clean white; its black stripes on an orange background color are widely spaced. The stripes are like fingerprints: no two patterns are alike.
A mutation of the Bengal subspecies, white tigers have dark brown or reddish brown stripes on a white background color, and some are wholly white. Black tigers have tawny, yellow or white stripes on a black background color. The skin of a black tiger, recovered from smugglers, measured 8 1/2 feet and was displayed at the National Museum of Natural History, New Delhi. The existence of black tigers without stripes has been reported but not substantiated.
Indochinese Tiger (Panthera tigris corbetti)
DESCRIPTION: Adult males are 8-feet-5 to 9-feet-4-inches long and females, 7-feet-7 to 8-feet-4 inches long. Males weigh 330 to 430 pounds and females, 221 to 287 pounds.
Sumatran Tiger (Panthera tigris sumatrae)
DESCRIPTION: The last of the island tigers, this cat is generally smaller than mainland tigers. The average adult male weighs 220 to 309 pounds and is 7-feet-2 to 8-feet-5 inches long; the female, 165 to 242 pounds and 7-feet to 7-feet-6-inches long.Its color is notably darker than mainland tigers, with its stripes numerous and closely spaced. In fact, it is the most striped of all the tiger subspecies.