31202The Sumatran Tiger: The World’s Rarest Tiger Species

Panthera tigris sumatrae (the Sumatran Tiger) is not only the smallest subspecies of the big cat, it is also the rarest. Classified as critically endangered, it is only found on the Indonesian island from which it takes its name, and there is estimated to be as few as 400 left surviving in the world today.

To make its struggle for survival even more urgent, it is now the last subspecies remaining in South Asia – with both the Javan and Bali subspecies now extinct.


Living a mostly solitary life, they exist in a variety of habitats on the island, from lush pockets of low-lying swamp and peat forests around the coast to the more remote mountainous regions of evergreen forests. They are good swimmers and frequently hunt (very successfully) in the water. Two population counts were carried out in 1997 and 2004 as part of a government conservation plan, and their numbers are, sadly, on the decrease. In 1978 there were an estimated 1,000, which is down to around half that amount today.

Physical Characteristics

Adult males measure up to around 2.5m from head to tail and weigh up to 140kg. (Females are considerably smaller.) Their fur is dense and dark orange with close, black stripes that vary and become lighter in colour towards their edge. The males also have a distinctive ‘ruff’ of fur around their face and neck, almost like a mane.

Hunting and Feeding Behaviour

Like all big cats they are carnivorous, and are extremely efficient hunters. Their propensity for water means their opportunities for food sources are greatly increased. They feed on both large and small prey, including reptiles, fish, birds, monkeys, wild boar, deer, elephant calves, tapir and even rhinoceros. They are not very good climbers, so the higher boughs of trees provide the only real safe haven for potential prey once in their sights.

Conservation Status

Illegal poaching and decimation of habitat are the main threats to the subspecies’ survival. The Indonesian government has strict laws in place regarding hunting the big cat, with large fines and even jail time for those caught poaching. Unfortunately, even with these deterrents, there is a huge Asian market for the animal’s body parts and products derived from them – and the trade still flourishes.

Several conservation strategies have been in place since 1995 to manage and study wild populations, but their numbers are still declining at a disturbing rate. Now classified as critically endangered, it’s not only poachers they have to contend with, but also dramatic fragmentation of habitat around the island through deforestation.

See Conservation in Action on Tiger Tours

For those who want to play a part in helping preserve this beautiful animal before it is lost forever, raising awareness of its plight is something everyone can do. There are plenty of opportunities to get involved in conservation initiatives on a global level. For those looking for a closer view, Tiger tours to the Indian subcontinent afford not only a privileged encounter with the magnificent Bengal subspecies, but also the chance to see Tiger conservation in action.

Marissa Ellis-Snow is a freelance nature writer with a special interest in Tiger watching. As a passionate lover of wildlife, Marissa chooses the expert-led Tiger tours organised by Naturetrek, which have brought her unforgettable sightings of a wide range of species in some of the most spectacular regions on Earth.

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