7 Extinct Big Cats

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A big cat is typically a member of the genus Panthera, plus the cheetah and puma. Since the first pantherine felids appeared over 1 million years ago, many have followed and become extinct.

Caspian tiger (Panthera tigris virgata)

Caspian Tiger
A Caspian tiger in Berlin Zoo in 1899.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Extinct by 2003, the Caspian tiger takes its most common name from the Caspian Sea. It roamed eastern Turkey, northern Iran, Mesopotamia, the Caucasus around its namesake, Central Asia, northern Afghanistan, and western China. 

From photographs, it can be seen that the Caspian tiger’s fur was brighter and more consistent than the Amur tiger, with narrower and more closely set stripes compared to tigers from Manchuria. Their winter coat was paler and had less distinct patterns than the tigers’ pelt during the summer, and had much thicker fur than other tigers.

The Caspian tiger became extinct largely due to poachers and those who shot wild animals for sport. Losing their already restricted habitats, the tigers were also driven out and killed by the Russian army during World War I and tiger skins were sold for high prices. With the rapid decline of wild pigs during the mid-1900s, the tigers were quickly under threat. The last known tiger was killed in 1954 in Turkmenistan, and no other sightings have been reported since 1998.

Due to its similarities to the Amur tiger, some hope that the land previously roamed by the Caspian tiger can help its close relative to survive.

Javan tiger (Panthera tigris sondaica)

Javan Tiger
A photograph of a Javan tiger taken in 1938 by Andries Hoogerwerf.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The Javan tiger was native to Java in Indonesia until the 1970s.  It was closely related to the Sumatran and Bali tigers.

Compared to the Sumatran tiger, the Javan tiger was larger with long, thin stripes. It was said to be strong enough to break the legs of horses and water buffaloes with its paws, though it primarily preyed on banteng, wild boar, and Javan rusa deer.

Hunted to extinction, its natural habitat was converted to be used for agriculture and infrastructure. In the 1830s, bounties were issued for Javan tigers, and the killing of tigers increased in the 20th century due to the insufficient production of rice. Land was cleared for more rice fields and many tigers, and their prey, were poisoned and displaced from their forests. During 1965, even reserves couldn’t protect the Javan tigers, with armed groups killing those that remained.

Javan tigers were officially declared extinct by the International Union for Conservation of Nature in 2003, though some have claimed to have seen them in Java. 

Bali tiger (Panthera tigris balica)

Bali tiger skin
A preserved skin of Panthera tigris balica from Leiden museum circa 1936.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Formerly from the Indonesian island of Bali, the Bali tiger is thought to have been extinct since the 1950s. It was closely related to the extant Sumatran tiger of Sumatra in Indonesia.

The Bali tiger was smaller than both the Sumatran and Javan tigers, and similarly hunted the Javan rusa. Only seven tiger skins and skulls of Bali tigers were preserved in collections by museums, so less is known about them than their relatives. They likely lived in Bali’s mangrove forests, dunes, and savannah biomes.

After the Dutch took over Bali in the 19th century, European hunting trips began targeting the tigers with steel foot traps hidden under bait and rifles used at close range. The creation of West Bali National Park in 1941 was too late to save the tigers from extinction. 

Tigers were a part of Balinese folklore and art, with tiger whiskers ground up considered an undetectable poison, and babies were given amulet necklaces with black coral and part of a tiger (typically a tooth or bit of bone).

Cape lion (Panthera leo melanochaita)

Cape lion
The only known photo of a live Cape lion in Jardin des Plantes, circa 1860.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The Cape lion became extinct in the mid-19th century in Southern and Eastern Africa, though they were initially thought to only include lions from the Cape Peninsula.

They took their scientific name from their distinctive black manes and black-edged ears. Thought to have been bigger than than the Asiatic lion, they also had longer skulls than other lions.

While there isn’t much information available about the Cape lions, it is largely agreed that they were wiped out due to hunting rather than losing their habitat. They were seen up until the 1850s, after which very few were sighted, among them, a small cub bought in 1876. 

Descendants of the Cape lions may have been found in Russia, likely the offspring of interbred or captive lions, though testing was not completed.

American lion (Panthera atrox)

Also known as the North American lion or American cave lion, the American lion was a pantherine cat during the Pleistocene epoch, over 11,000 years ago.

The American lion was bigger than modern lions but smaller than the largest carnivore of the time. They may have been reddish in color given preserved skin found in caves and cave paintings of the lions.

It’s likely that the American lion joined most of the Pleistocene megafauna in extinction during the Quaternary extinction event. Hunting by humans may have also contributed to their extinction.

European jaguar (Panthera gombaszoegensis)

The European jaguar lived during the Early to Middle Pleistocene epoch across Eurasia. In 1938, remains of the jaguar were first excavated in Slovakia, with other fossils found across western Europe.

Larger than modern-day jaguars, they were 70-210 kg and capable of bringing down large prey like megafauna. Thought to be a forest-dwelling cat-like modern jaguar, they were probably solitary.

It’s not known what might have caused its extinction.

European cave lion (Panthera spelaea)

Panthera spelaea is also known as the Eurasian cave lion or European cave lion and is often confused with Panthera leo fossilis.

This cave lion roamed across Europe and used the Bering land bridge to access Alaska and Canada. Carvings and cave paintings from 15,0000-17,000 years ago were found of the lions in France. Their manes were likely very small or non-existent, and they were one of the largest lion species, with a pawprint measuring 15 cm across.

It is believed that the European cave lion became extinct around 14,000 years ago in Eurasia and was completely eradicated with the receding of the Weichselian glaciation.

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