A tiger (Panthera tigris) needs a relatively large territory and a steady supply of prey to thrive. “The average minimum territory size for a female tiger is around 15-20 sq. km, though some studies have suggested it could be closer to 10 sq. km in some places. Male territories can go up to 40 sq. km or more.
What is a tiger’s territory? In simplest terms, any area that is actively used and defended by a tiger is called its territory. A tiger’s territory is its home, It knows where to find food and water, where to hide if it is threatened. It knows exactly where its favorite pool lies for a cool dip in the hot summer.
There are many factors that influence a tiger’s territory. Chief among these is the distribution and density of prey in the habitat.
Since tiger territories are so large, active usage varies. Some parts are used more in summer, others in winter. Tigers, like many large mammals, are believed to have a mental map of their territories. For example, when a tiger misses killing its prey in a particular location, it will often immediately venture out to the next known location, where prey is abundant.
Tigers inform each other of their whereabouts through complex scent markings that contain pheromones. They do this by spraying on trees or any relevant spot during their regular movement through their territory. Tiger scat (poo) or scrapes (with their hind feet) also leave behind scent residues, which may function as cues to the tigers’ presence. The big cats also have a variety of calls, although we have little understanding of what these calls mean, and the messages they convey.
When a tiger sniffs the scent markings left by other cats, tiger lift their head, wrinkle their nose, curl their lips back, and stick their tongue out over the lower incisors. This is called the flehmen response, and is meant to expose the vomeronasal organ, an olfactory receptor in the roof of a tiger’s mouth that allows the “read” the pheromones and chemicals deposited on a tree or rock. Research suggests that male tigers use the flehmen to figure out the location of other tigers, and to determine if tigresses are ready to mate.
Males and females approach territory quite differently. In addition to prey density, females also prioritize availability of dinning sites, water, and how much human disturbance they experience. For males, it also depends upon how many females he can access for breeding. Males will often compete with other males in the region to expand their territory and gain access to more females. According to WWF India, the territory of an adult male may encompass territories of two to seven females.
Tiger moms are very involved parents. During the first few months, they spend much of their time around the den, ensuring their young are warm, fed, and healthy. As they grow, cubs wander outside, and eventually accompany her on hunts. For these reasons, female tigers tend to select territories with good cover and access to food for their young. Mothers with cubs are territorial, but they are also flexible, so if a new male comes into her territory, she will very willingly leave with her cubs to protect them.
One of the reasons females leave their territory is to reduce the high infant mortality rate among cubs. Many cubs die in accidents or are killed by new males that take over the siring males’ territory. Such takeovers often lead to the new male killing all the cubs sired by the previous male. It may seem brutal, but it ensures the females come into heat quickly, as lactation ceases once the cubs die, allowing the new male to sire offspring, thus investing energy protecting his own genes, rather than other males’ genes.
Cubs begin exploring without the mother around 18 months of age. When female offspring become older and start getting more independent, they start using their mother’s territory. It is well established that female offspring will often try to settle adjacent to the mother’s territory, while males move farther out and establish very independent territories from that of the mother.
There are two ways that sub-adults create their territory: By challenging existing tigers in the area or finding a vacant area in the forest that is unclaimed. More commonly, tigers undergo a lot of challenges and even a few battles before they are able to establish their own territories. Many may get killed in the process.