If you’re on safari in Africa and spot a tiger, it’s definitely something to write home about. Tigers as we know them, you see, have never lived in the wild in Africa. But there’s still a chance you could see one there. Let us explain.
Lions, leopards and tigers are all part of the Felidae family of cats, which originated in Africa and share a common ancestor. At some point, probably around 2 million years ago, one offshoot of Felidae migrated east toward Asia, and those cats evolved into the orange-, black-, and white-striped beasts we know today. Once established in Asia, however, tigers never returned to Africa, although scientists aren’t exactly sure why.
“One can offer a series of speculations about why tigers did not get to Africa, but they are all speculations,” said J.L. David Smith, professor at the University of Minnesota’s department of fisheries, wildlife and conservation biology. “The best explication is time.”
Many wildlife researchers believe that, historically, tigers inhabited much of Asia, and that various tiger subspecies naturally migrated and spread out over time. Pleistocene glacial fluctuations and geographic boundaries, however, probably made it too difficult for tigers to return to Africa. According to University of Minnesota conservation biology researcher Shu-Jin Luo, tigers did not disperse westward to India until 16,000 years ago.
Now, although tigers are not indigenous to Africa, they can be found there in zoos, special reserves and even kept as pets. And that’s how you might come across one in the wild.