Sumatran tiger

Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Photo Ark
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A critically endangered Sumatran tiger, Panthera tigris sumatrae, at the Miller Park Zoo.

Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Photo Ark

What is the Sumatran tiger?

The Sumatran tiger is a subspecies of tiger native to the Indonesian island of Sumatra. It’s the smallest of the tigers, possibly because it evolved on an isolated island habitat. The Sumatran tiger’s stripes are closer together and its fur is a darker orange than other subspecies, better allowing it to blend into its tropical rainforest habitat.

Its distinctive beard and mane also help set it apart.

Diet and hunting

Like all tigers, Sumatran tigers are carnivores. They will prey on almost any available animal, big or small. This includes fish, monkeys, wild boar, tapirs, and deer, among many others. They hunt at night and tend to make about one large kill a week.

They can run up to nearly 40 miles per hour, but only in short bursts, so they have to make the most of it. That’s why they’re ambush predators, slowly and silently stalking their prey until they’re ready to pounce. Habitat loss means Sumatran tigers are having to walk farther and farther in search of a meal—sometimes up to 18 miles.

Lifecycle

Sumatran tigers are solitary, except during courtship, when a male and female will spend several days together, mating often to ensure success. A female is pregnant for about a hundred days before giving birth to a litter of one to six cubs. The cubs stick with their mothers for about two years.

Threats

Habitat loss and poaching are the two biggest threats the critically endangered Sumatran tiger faces. The expansion of oil palm plantations was the primary driver behind a nearly 20 percent loss in Sumatran tiger habitat between 2000 and 2012, one study found. (Palm oil, from the oil palm tree, is now the world’s most popular vegetable oil, used in everything from cookies and pizza dough to lipstick and soap.) Loss of prey animals because of deforestation is also having a negative effect on Sumatran tigers.

Tiger poaching occurs even in protected areas. Tiger bones are used to make tiger bone wine, a drink in demand by a small number of wealthy Chinese who believe it will impart the characteristics of the tiger to the drinker. Tiger canines may be worn as jewelry, and tiger skin furniture and other products are seen as status symbols among some in Asia.

Conservation

Many of the remaining Sumatran tigers live in protected areas, such as national parks. Park rangers’ anti-poaching patrols give them an extra layer of protection.

As the world’s largest Muslim country, Indonesia has also turned to religion for help. In 2014, the country’s top religious body announced a fatwa, or religious decree, against poaching. Conservation groups have used this fatwa as a way to raise awareness that killing Sumatran tigers isn’t just against the law of the country—it’s against religious law as well.

There are also conservation efforts supporting sustainable management of tiger habitat, stronger protections of the tigers in those habitats, and development programs for the communities that live nearby, so that no one feels forced to turn to poaching to feed their families.

Captive-breeding programs outside of Indonesia have allowed researchers to learn more about Sumatran tiger reproduction and behavior, with the goal of improving conservation efforts on the ground.


What's Driving Tigers Toward Extinction?

With fewer than 4,000 of these iconic animals in the wild today, tiger populations have been in a rapid decline over the past century. These already endangered big cats are being driven toward extinction as demand for tiger products continue. Learn how traditional Chinese medicine, tiger bone wine, and even selfies are complicit in this destruction. For more on tiger conservation and the latest conservation news, check out National Geographic's Wildlife Watch.

Watch: Extremely Endangered Tiger Losing Habitat—and Fast

A 2017 study shows that the critically endangered Sumatran tiger may soon vanish from the planet. Sumatra has one of the highest rates of deforestation in the world, driven largely by palm oil production. Habitat loss has driven the tiger's wild population to fewer than 600.