Sumatran Tiger (Panthera tigris sondaica).: Barry Kent MacKay

o a degree I am somewhat hesitant to call my subject a “Sumatran” Tiger, as it may imply that it is a species distinct from other kinds of tiger. And that assumption may spring, in part, from widespread lack of knowledge about taxonomy, nomenclature and evolutionary process within a society where a disconcerting percentage of people don’t “believe in”, thus don’t understand, evolution. Of course evolution occurs whether “believed in” or not. The Sumatran Tiger is a taxon, a group of animals who in various genetically-determined ways resemble each other more than they resemble other groups of animals. For purposes of classification it is currently established that there is one species of tiger, “the” tiger, with a wide original distribution across much of Asia.  But various physical barriers isolated various populations of tigers, reducing “gene flow” among them, and allowing minor distinctions to evolve within each of these more or less discreet populations.

Some six to twelve thousand years ago what is now an archipelago of large islands in Indonesia, including Sumatra, Bali and Java, were either connected to the mainland, or separated by very narrow channels or perhaps contiguous swamplands. Tigers can swim very well, but as the seas rose gene flow between island populations and animals on the mainland would diminish to virtually zero.  While the tigers would breed among themselves, they would very slowly “diverge” from those found in other regions, not enough to be considered separate species, but distinct “subspecies”.  Thus, to the scientific species name, Panthera tigris, is added to the isolated island animals, a third name, sondaica, that distinguishes those animals as a distinct subspecies.  Subspecies are not so different that they cannot interbreed and produce viable young when or where their populations meet, but of course with wide stretches of seawater to cross such meetings were unlikely.  The island tigers became distinctly different in appearance from mainland tigers, albeit to a minor degree. 

Sadly, those on Bali were entirely exterminated sometime after WW II, perhaps surviving into the 1950s. Those on Java lasted perhaps another two decades, but are now believed also to be extinct. That just leaves the ones on Sumatra, and they are critically endangered!  Meanwhile, the idea that they form a distinct taxon has been verified objectively by modern DNA analysis.

We frequently hear that there are more tigers in zoos than in the wild.  This applies to the entire species, but Sumatran Tigers are down to a few hundred individuals in captivity, and in the wild!  Worse, wild animals are isolated into separate subpopulations, none very large, and all showing signs of continued decline. Inbreeding is both inevitable and likely to further compromise survivability, to the point where Sumatran Tigers are unlikely to survive.

They are among the smallest subspecies of Tiger, with other minor and not always consistent variations in appearance. Palm and acacia plantations, reduction in other large mammals they prey upon, and poaching, all threaten them. They prefer to live in the depths of forested wilderness, which is vanishing in response to increasing agricultural demands, exacerbated, I’m told, by widespread corruption within government agencies otherwise tasked with environmental protection. While protected, there continues to be a strong black market demand for tiger parts and poaching continues to diminish tiger numbers. The situation is not helped by the fact that tigers will sometimes prey on livestock, companion animals and humans.  In balance, their future looks bleak. 

My painting is based on zoo animals identified as “pure” Sumatran Tigers (many captive tigers are mixtures of various subspecies), and photos of wild animals.  It is 17 by 25 inches, in oils on compressed hardboard.  I started it some years ago, then set it aside, only to finish it last year as I felt I was becoming more adept in certain oil painting techniques.

Barry Kent MacKay

Bird Artist, Illustrator

Studio: (905) 472 9731

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31 Colonel Butler Drive

Markham, ON L3P 6B6 Canada

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