Big Cats: Panthera
Typically the term big cats applies to the five Panthera species, lions, tigers, jaguars, leopards and snow leopards.
The Jaguar (Panthera onca), North America's only native big cat, inhabits areas of the Southwestern United States, south to Argentina.
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Its large range suggests adaptability to a variety of habitats, as long as they provide an adequate supply of shelter, food and water.
The IUCN considers them a vulnerable species. They are listed as endangered in the United States.
The name leopard also refers to a group of big cats with the Latin name Panthera pardus.
Once Panthera pardus roamed the forests, mountains, grasslands and swamps throughout much of the European, African and Asian continents.
Today their range is limited, with the most stable populations found in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia.
Given the leopard's wide range, the task of identifying leopard subspecies has always been problematic. Based on current genetic evidence, the IUCN recognized nine different subspecies.
As a group, leopard populations are declining, and the IUCN lists them as a near threatened species.
Three subspecies, the Amur Leopard (Asia), the Javan Leopard, and the South Arabian Leopard are listed as critically endangered, moving to the verge of extinction.
Lions (Panthera leo), the big cats of Africa (there is a very small Asian lion population in India) are commonly misnamed the King of the Jungle.
Actually, grasslands and surrounding forests are their preferred habitats.
Lions are a unique species of cat. Unlike many wild cat species, lions live and hunt in social groups called prides.
Researchers estimate that wild lion populations have decreased substantially over the past couple of decades. There may be around twenty thousand lions found primarily in four African states, South Africa, Botswana, Tanzania, and Kenya.
The IUCN lists the West African population as endangered.
The snow leopard (Panthera uncia), the world mountain big cat, calls the mountains of Central Asia home.
Normally wild cats are characterized by orange, tan and brown colors, with or without stripes or spots. The snow leopard's gray and white spotted coat developed as camouflage in their snowy and rocky environment.
The IUCN estimates a population of about 2,500, and they are listed as endangered.
Tigers (panthera tigris), the biggest of the big cats, also rank among the most endangered big cats.
The IUCN estimates that approximately 5,000 - 7,000 tigers now live in the wild, down from approximately 100,000 at the beginning of the twentieth century.
These big cats of Asia, consist of five different subspecies, and their names derive from their geographical home land. Recognizing a sixth subspecies the Malayan tiger is currently under consideration.
Here's a brief run down of the status of the different subspecies.
- The Bengal tiger lives in forested areas around the Indian sub-continent. Population estimates of approximately 4,000 make it the most populous of all tiger subspecies.
- Indo-Chinese tigers live forested areas of South East Asian states such as China, Thailand and Myanmar. This species ranks as the second most populous with maybe around 2,000 living in the wild.
- Sumatran tigers live on the island of Sumatra, Indonesia. They are the smallest of the tiger species and there might be around 400 living in the wild.
- Siberian or Amur tigers hold the distinction of being the biggest of the world's big cats. They live along the forests of the Amur River, a natural boundary line between Russia and China on the east coast. They are endangered, however, population estimates taken over the past decade show that 400-500 remained steady.
- South China tigers live in south-central China, and are commonly recognized as the most endangered tigers in the world. The Chinese government now gives them the same status as the Panda, and is actively pursuing a conservation program. Population estimates are difficult to establish. There may be a couple of dozen or so living in the wild and another sixty or so in zoos.
In modern times, three additional species have gone extinct: Bali Tiger (Panthera tigris ssp. balica); Javan Tiger (Panthera tigris ssp. sondaica); Hyrcanian Tiger (Panthera tigris ssp. virgata).
© 2004-2012 Patricia A. Michaels.