Genetic studies have suggested that the Indochinese tiger may be the ancestral species of all tigers, the thick branch from which the other subspecies stemmed off between 108,000 and 72,000 years ago.
As late as the 1990s, tigers were thought to be relatively common in this region of Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and southwestern China, though they hadn’t been extensively studied.
The IUCN reports that the cats are on the verge of critically endangered status, with no known evidence of breeding tigers in Cambodia or Vietnam and just a handful hanging on elsewhere.
A total of only perhaps 300 Indochinese tigers live in the wild.
Aggressive poaching has decimated both the Indochinese tiger (Panthera tigris corbetti) and the populations of the wild pigs, deer, banteng, and other large bovids on which they depend as prey.
Economic development projects in the region—such as roads, dams, and mines—have also put the squeeze on some cats, though large tracts of good tropical forests remain here, which may provide a hopeful habitat if effective protections are put in place.
(Learn about National Geographic’s Big Cats Initiative.)
More than a thousand tigers prowled the Indonesian island of Sumatra when the animals were surveyed in 1978.
Today, fewer than half that number survive here and those cats are under siege by poachers and ceaseless deforestation of their home forests fueled by the pulp, paper, and palm oil industries.
A 2004 report from TRAFFIC, the IUCN/WWF effort to track the illegal wildlife trade, suggested that poachers were killing at least 40 of the critically endangered animals every year.
The Sumatran tiger (Panthera tigris sumatrae) is the last of the “island tiger” subspecies.
The neighboring Indonesian islands of Java and Bali were once home to their own distinct tigers, but the Bali tiger (Panthera tigris balica) and the Javan tiger (Panthera tigris sondaica) each died out during the 20th century.
Conservationists are working hard to help their Sumatran relatives avoid the same fate.
Siberian tigers, also known as Amur tigers, prowl not Siberian taiga but the chilly forests of eastern Russia. On the brink of extinction and numbering just a few dozen during the mid-20th century, some 400 to 500 of these cats live today in Russia, with a few more in China and possibly North Korea.
This subspecies’ historical comeback is a remarkable conservation success story that gives some hope for the future of all wild tigers. A female tiger can have 15 cubs over a lifetime and there is still some room for healthy populations to roam—but only if humans can curb poaching and make a commitment to let them live.
That may be easiest to achieve in the Amur tiger’s vast northern woodlands, which offer fewer human residents and more space to be wild. In fact the Russian Far East is home to the biggest unfragmented tiger habitat left in the world.
The tigers in this vast realm grow large as well, feeding on deer and boar to stretch nearly 11 feet long and topping the scales at 660 pounds.
Recent genetic studies suggest that the extinct Caspian tiger (Panthera tigris virgata), last seen in the 1970s, was in fact the same subspecies as the Siberian tiger (Panthera tigris altaica).
If so, this same subspecies stretched across a vast area from the Russian Far East, west through the forests lying north of Mongolia’s steppes, and into modern Turkey and Iran.