Wildlife & Biodiversity

World Tiger Day: The tiger was not endemic to India; it came here from China

As the world celebrates the largest felid today, here are some frequently asked questions on how the tiger came to be in the Indian subcontinent  

By Rajat Ghai
Published: Friday 29 July 2022
An adult South China Tiger, which is functionally extinct in the wild according to the IUCN. Photo: iStock

When did the tiger evolve?

Large cats including tigers evolved from a common ancestor probably similar to modern-day leopards or jaguars five million years ago, conservationist Valmik Thapar had noted in his 2002 book The Cult of the Tiger.

Did the tiger evolve in India?

No. Previous studies indicate tigers might have evolved near the South China region and dispersed from there, according to Uma Ramakrishnan, molecular ecologist working as assistant professor at National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bengaluru.

When did the tiger reach India?

It is impossible to tell when tigers colonised India as there is hardly any evidence for this unless one could go back in a time machine. However, studies based on models of habitats and climate suggest tigers occupied most of India around 12,000 years ago, according to Ramakrishnan.

If tigers evolved in southern China, which route did they take to enter south Asia?

Models of demographic history of tigers using whole genome sequences (Armstrong et al 2019) suggest Northeast Indian tigers are (a) closest to south east Asian tigers and (b) the most divergent of populations within Indian tigers. Together, these results indicate that tigers may have entered India through Northeast India.

Are tigers found in high altitudes in south Asia?

Yes. In 2017, camera traps showed a Bengal tiger roaming in the snow-clad peaks of the Mishmi Hills, Arunachal Pradesh, in sub-zero temperatures. At 3,630 metres, these were the highest photographic evidence of tigers in the Indian part of Eastern Himalayas.

When the tiger came to India, how did it colonise the country’s entire landmass?

Although Valmik Thapar does not give a time or route, he does have this to say in The Cult of The Tiger: “The tiger quickly spread throughout India, moving into the mangrove swamps, evergreen forests, dry deciduous forests, and the variety of other vegetation that covered Indian land.”

Demographic simulations using whole genome sequences potentially suggest that Northeast Indian tigers are the most distinct. There are other populations of the tiger in India, like central Indian tigers, Western Ghats tigers and south Indian tigers, but they diverged from each other around the same time, according to Ramakrishnan.

When did Indian tigers diverge from others?

Our studies based on genome sequencing suggest that Indian tigers diverged from other tigers relatively recently, around 8,000-9,000 years ago, says Ramakrishnan.

Have tiger fossils been found in India?

The tiger has scant presence in the fossil record, but figures in the archaeological record at Mesolithic Mahadaha, Neolithic Loebanr III and Aligrama in Swat, at Atranjikhera and at Madar Dih, according to Shibani Bose’s book Mega Mammals in Ancient India: Rhinos, Tigers and Elephants.

How does the tiger feature in Ancient India’s literature?

The earliest depictions of the tiger on the Indian Subcontinent go back to Harappan seals dating back to 2500 BC, according to Thapar.

Sometimes the tiger is horned and is seen standing with a trough-like object in front of him. On another seal is an intriguing figure, the hind portion of which is that of a tiger and the front portion that of a woman; the woman has a conspicuous long plait and a tree growing above her head.

Another seal depicts a nude female, upside down with thighs held wide apart, with two tigers standing on one side. The ritual significance is not clear but evidently, it evokes a feminine connection of the tiger with either fertility or birth.

Can the conventional wisdom regarding the origin of tigers change in the future?

Yes, it can. This whole business of evolution is in a flux. Every day, something new pops up, Divyabhanusinh Chavda, author of two highly acclaimed books on India’s lions and cheetahs, had told Down To Earth.

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