Learn About 10 Recently Extinct Tigers and Lions

Smilodon, commonly known as the Saber-Toothed Tiger. Daniel Reed

Few creatures on earth are as threatened by extinction today as big cats—lions, tigers and cheetahs, among other breeds. In fact, the past 10,000 years have witnessed the demise of no less than 10 species and subspecies of big cats, and even still-extant lions, tigers and cheetahs are hovering on the brink of extinction, thanks to relentless ecological disruption and loss of habitat.  

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The American Cheetah

The American Cheetah was more closely related to this modern cougar. Wikimedia Commons

Despite its name, the American Cheetah (genus Miracinonyx) was more closely related to pumas and jaguars than to modern cheetahs; its slim, muscular, cheetah-like body can be chalked up to convergent evolution (the tendency for animals that pursue similar lifestyles and inhabit similar ecosystems—in this case the wide, grassy plains of North America and Africa—to evolve similar body plans). As fast and sleek as it was, the American Cheetah went extinct about 10,000 years ago, shortly after the last Ice Age, possibly as a result of human encroachment on its territory. 

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The American Lion

american lion
The American Lion. Wikimedia Commons

As with the American Cheetah (see previous slide), the big-cat affiliations of the American Lion (Panthera leo atrox) are in some doubt: this Pleistocene predator may actually have been more closely related to tigers and jaguars than to modern lions. The amazing thing about the American Lion is that it coexisted, and competed, with both Smilodon (aka the Saber-Toothed Tiger shown below) and Canis dirus, also known as the Dire Wolf. If it was in fact a subspecies of lion, the American Lion was by far the biggest member of its breed, some pack-alpha males weighing as much as half a ton. 

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The Bali Tiger

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The Bali Tiger. Wikimedia Commons

As you might have surmised from its name, the Bali Tiger (Panthera tigris balica) was native to the Indonesian island of Bali, where the last scattered individuals went extinct a mere 50 or so years ago. For thousands of years, the Bali Tiger coexisted uneasily with the indigenous human settlers of Indonesia; however, it didn't find itself truly imperiled until the arrival of the first European traders and mercenaries, who mercilessly hunted this tiger to extinction, sometimes simply for sport and sometimes to protect their animals and homesteads.

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The Barbary Lion

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The Barbary Lion. Wikimedia Commons

One of the more fearsome subspecies of Panthera leo, the Barbary Lion (Panthera leo leo) was a prized possession of medieval British lords who wanted a novel way to intimidate their serfs; a few large, shaggy individuals even made their way from northern Africa to the menagerie of the Tower of London, where countless British aristrocrats were imprisoned and executed. Barbary Lion males possessed especially large manes, and they were among the largest lions of historical times, weighing as much as 500 pounds apiece. It may yet prove possible to reintroduce the Barbary Lion into the wild by selective breeding of its scattered descendants. 

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The Cape Lion

The Cape Lion. Wikimedia Commons

The Cape Lion, Panthera leo melanochaitus, holds a tenuous position in the big-cat classification books; some naturalists maintain that it shouldn't count as a Panthera leo subspecies at all, and was in fact a mere geographical offshoot of the still-extant but dwindling Transvaal Lion of South Africa (it can be a tricky matter to distinguish a new species from an isolated population) Whatever the case, the last specimens of this big-maned lion breed expired in the late 19th century, and no convincing sightings have been recorded since (not for lack of trying by dedicated cat-watchers).

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The Caspian Tiger

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The Caspian Tiger. Wikimedia Commons

Of all the big cats that have gone extinct over the last 100 years, the Caspian Tiger (Panthera tigris virgata) occupied the largest expanse of territory, ranging from Iran to the Caucasus to the vast, windswept steppes of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. We can thank Imperial Russia, which bordered these regions, for the extinction of this majestic beast; Tsarist officials set a bounty on the Caspian Tiger during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and starving Russian citizens eagerly complied. As with the Barbary Lion, it may yet prove possible to de-extinct the Caspian Tiger via the selective breeding of its descendants.

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The Cave Lion

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The Cave Lion. Heinrich Harder

Probably the most famous of all extinct big cats next to the Saber-Tooth Tiger—if only for its close association with the Cave Bear, on which it regularly lunched—the Cave Lion (Panthera leo spelaea) was one of the apex predators of Pleistocene Eurasia. Oddly enough, this lion didn't live in dark grottoes; it earned its name because various individuals were unearthed in dank European caves, which Panthera leo spelaea packs raided in search of bear-sized snacks (an angry, full-grown Cave Bear would have been an even match for an 800-pound Cave Lion male.)

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The European Lion

european lion
The European Lion. public domain

Confusingly, what paleontologists refer to as the European Lion comprised as many as three, rather than just one, subspecies of Panthera leo: Panthera leo europaea, Panthera leo tartarica and Panthera leo fossilis. What all these big cats shared in common were their relatively large sizes (some males approached 400 pounds, females, as always in the big cat family, being slightly smaller) and their susceptibility to encroachment and capture by representatives of early European "civilization": for example, European Lions featured in the gruesome arena combats of ancient Rome. 

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The Javan Tiger

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The Javan Tiger. Wikimedia Commons

Like its close relative in oblivion, the Bali Tiger, the Javan Tiger (Panthera tigris sondaica) was restricted to a single island in the vast Indonesian archipelago. Unlike the Bali Tiger, though, the Javan Tiger succumbed not to relentless hunting by settlers bent on preserving their livestock, but to relentless encroachment on its territory, as the human population of Java exploded during the 19th and 20th centuries and continues to explode today. The last Javan Tiger was glimpsed a few decades ago; given how crowded the island of Java has become, no one holds out much hope for another sighting. 

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The Saber-Tooth Tiger

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The Saber-Tooth Tiger. Daniel Reed

The last big cat on this list is a bit of a ringer: despite its name, the Saber-Tooth Tiger (aka Smilodon) wasn't technically a tiger, and it went extinct at the cusp of the historical era, about 10,000 years ago. Still, given its enduring place in the popular imagination, Smilodon at least merits a mention: this was one of the most dangerous predators of the Pleistocene epoch, capable of sinking its canines into large megafauna mammals and cruelly waiting nearby as its victims bled to death. As intimidating as it was, though, Smilodon was no match for early Homo sapiens, who hunted it to extinction shortly after the last Ice Age.