The Extinction of the Caspian Tiger


Yesterday or tomorrow? - A lesson for Humanity.

Depending on whom you believe, the last Caspian tiger was reportedly shot in Northern Iran in 1959, or captured in Northeastern Afghanistan in 1997. There have also been recent reports of tigers living in mountains, forests and steppes on the western side of the Caspian Sea, as well as in remote forested areas of Turkmenistan.

The Caspian Sea is the largest lake in the world. It is an ancient remnant of the Tethys Ocean, which, during the Cretaceous era, extended from the Atlantic, through

Caspian tiger killed in Northern Iran, early 1940’s, © Boomiran/The Tiger Foundation

the Mediterranean region, all the way to the South China Sea. It is nestled in a large basin between the Trans-Caucasian and Elburz Mountains, which extend eastward to join the Pamirs, Hindu Kush and Himalayan ranges. The area surrounding the Caspian Sea coast has a number of uniquely rich pockets of biodiversity, in stark contrast with much of the arid Middle East.

The forest here used to be alive with wild animals: wolves, wild boars, jackals, leopards, brown bears, wild sheep, gazelles, deer, cheetah…and tigers. Most of these mammals can still be found in the remaining forested areas, such as Golestan National Park on the eastern Caspian coast, and on the western Caspian shore, which still offers winter sanctuary to millions of birds, including waterfowl and shorebirds.

The favored habitat of the Caspian tiger ( Panthera tigris virgata ) used to be around the coastal plains, particularly in the provinces of Mazandaran, Gilan, Golestan and Lankeran (Azerbaijan). All that remains today are small pockets of forested slopes and some marshy copses of beech, oak, hornbeam, tamarisk, pomegranates, boxwood and ash, where the dominant predator is the jackal. 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.

Captive Caspian tiger at Berlin Zoo, circa 1899 (color enhanced)
From time to time, rumors have circulated that Caspian tigers still exist, but these have never been scientifically verified. According to some experts at the Iranian Department of Environment, tigers may still survive in the mountains south of Aliabad, on both sides of the Turkmenistan border, and in the southeastern corner of the Caspian coast near or within the Parvar protected region. It is here that, some years ago, feline tracks were discovered which caused great excitement in IDOE. Twenty huge prints, 12cm long and 14.5cm wide, were found in both snow and on the ground. These were too large to be those of a Caspian leopard (Panthera Pardus), a large cat that still exists in this region, unless this was an extraordinarily large leopard.

We must study the tiger from a scientific, historical and cultural point of view before many valuable sources of information are lost forever. Most of the surviving people who have come into direct contact with Caspian tigers are now elderly. We still have time to make a record of their knowledge and experiences. In the unlikely event that there are some remaining Caspian tigers, we might also be able to do something to preserve the animals or their genes. But we won't be able to do much more than speculate until we compile more facts. This is precisely what The Caspian Tiger Investigation proposes to achieve.

An Outline of The Caspian Tiger Investigation)

Preserved Caspian tiger at the Medical College in Baku, Azerbaijan. Photo taken in 2000 by Farrokh Mostofi.