Imagine you are born from two species but belong to neither. Imagine that your mother’s species consists of lone hunters living a solitary life outside of the mating season, while your father’s species lives in highly social family groups. Imagine that one roams the jungles, wetlands and even mountain slopes of Asia while the other is largely confined to the savannahs of Africa. How confusing the liger’s heritage must be.
The liger is a hybrid cross between a male lion and a female tiger; both are in the genus Panthera but of the species leo and tigris respectively. The hybrid tigon (tion, tigron, tiglon) is born from a male tiger and a female lion.
The liger is the largest of all the felids, adults often standing taller and weighing more than both parent species. This is thought to be the result of an evolutionary breeding strategy. In a pride of lions, where more than one male might mate with a female, the males pass on a growth-promoting gene for their offspring to out-grow competitors, while the lionesses adds a growth-inhibiting gene to compensate. Tigers on the other hand are solitary animals. A tigress will usually only mate with one male without a biological need for growth-promoting and thus inhibiting genes. Therefore ligers grow big, endowed with a growth-promoting gene from the lion father uncompensated by a growth inhibiting gene from the tigress mother side, while tigons, receiving a growth inhibiting gene from the lioness mother while the male tiger does not pass on a growth-promoting gene, are often relatively small, only weighing up to 150 kg (350 lb), 10–20% smaller than lions.
Genetic analysis has indicated that tigers and snow leopards diverged from the other Panthera species about 2.88 million years ago, and that both species may be closer related to each other than to the lion, leopard and jaguar.
Ligers exist only in captivity because the habitats of the parental species do not overlap in the wild. Historically, the range of the Asiatic lion, now confined to India’s Gir National Forest with about 500 surviving individuals, did overlap with that of tigers and legends of ligers existing in the wild do exist. These myths are mostly propagated by liger breeders in the US trying to justify their practices; there is however no scientific evidence to support these claims.
Craig Packer, director of the Lion Research Center at the University of Minnesota, said in a 2012 National Geographic article: “Not only are wild lion and tiger populations separated by geography, there are certain behavior mechanisms in place that would prevent the two species from mating. […] If a tiger tried to mate with a female lion it would be chased away by the other lions pretty fast, and vice versa.”
Hybrids do occur in nature. There is scientific proof of blue-fin whale hybrids, grizzly-polar bear hybrids and Galapagos marine-land iguana hybrids, to name a few, but these are rare. Again, there is no proof that ligers have ever existed in the wild.
Lion-tiger hybrids were brought in to existence at least by the late 18th, early 19th century in India and are depicted in a few paintings and engravings of that time. Two liger cubs born in 1837 were exhibited to King William IV and his successor Queen Victoria.
German wild-animal trader and circus owner Carl Hagenbeck had at least two ligers born in his zoo, Hagenbeck’s Tierpark in Hamburg, in May 1897.
In 1935, four ligers from two litters were reared in the Zoological Gardens of Bloemfontein, South Africa.
Shasta, was the first American liger. She was born at the Hogle Zoo in Salt Lake City on May 14, 1948 and died in 1972 at the age of 24.
Today the USA holds the largest number of ligers, around 30, followed by China with maybe 20 and South Korea, Germany, Russia and South Africa each have a few. There probably exist less than 100 worldwide.
Ligers and tigons were long thought to be sterile, but some female ligers have produced offspring. In September 2012, the Russian Novosibirsk Zoo announced the birth of ‘liliger’ Kiara, born of a liger mother and a lion father.
Ligers have a tiger-like striped pattern that is very faint upon a tan lion-colored background. The abdominal area might be spotted; spots inherited from the lion parent, but usually only apparent on lion cubs. A male liger may have a modest leonine mane and tiger ear spots and tiger facial ruff may or may not be present in either sex. Ligers usually chuff like a tiger and roar like a lion, but without the lion grunt at the end. They usually inherit the tiger’s love of water.
One of the ligers in the photos, Namibia, came to Wildlife Waystation sanctuary, where I volunteer, from the largest rescue operation in its history that liberated this Liger girl and many other big cats from a ramshackle facility with enclosures constructed of chicken wire and plywood near Lava Hot Springs, Idaho, called Ligertown Game Farm.
On Wednesday September 20, 1995 some of the big cats at the facility had mauled the ‘owners’ Bob Fieber and Dotti Martin and escaped their shacks of knee-deep feces, decaying food and bones. No supplies or personnel were available to dart the animals with tranquilizers and the authorities destroyed eighteen of the free-roaming animals. After Wildlife Waystation was contacted and their staff had travelled the 800 miles there, twenty-four lions, one of which was only six days old, and three ligers were rescued and made the trip back to California. Namibia was discovered hiding under a pile of old carpet in a room at first thought to be empty. When the carpet was poked, in the words of Wildlife Waystation founder Martine Colette, “Namibia exploded and circled the room at ceiling height.” Probably due to spending her first few years in that place of horror, Namibia never got to trust or like humans in general.
Though indiscriminate in-breeding and deplorable conditions had left many of the animals with deformities and health problems, some of them were still alive and well 20 years later, including Namibia who was at the time of rescue already an adult and must have reached an age of at least 24 or 25 years. Namibia passed away on June 15, 2017.
The other liger that lived at Wildlife Waystation, Ariana, was brought there in 1994 for permanent sanctuary after her former owner, a private resident in Oregon, could no longer care for her. She came together with her close friend Sandora, a Bengal tiger. Sandora passed away, but Ariana, although no longer a ‘kitten’ at 24 years, remained the sweet, beautiful girl she had always been until she died in 2016. Paula Dorf Cosmetics named a lipstick after her.
The situation at Ligertown in 1995 was possible because of lax laws governing the possession and trading of exotic animals and the virtual absence of animal cruelty laws in the U.S. Unfortunately, since then little has been done to improve the laws and that became evident when in October 2011, 56 animals, including 18 Bengal tigers and 17 lions, were turned loose from the Muskingum County Animal Farm in Ohio by owner Terry Thompson before he shot and killed himself. At least 48 animals were consequently exterminated by the authorities.
As a result of limited federal and state management of captive exotic cats, the total population of lions and tigers in the United States is unknown but estimated to be in the tens of thousands combined. China has a large captive tiger population as well, bred and killed for the ‘traditional medicine’ industry.
At the same time, wild populations are in decline due to habitat loss resulting in fragmented home ranges, poaching and other conflicts with humans. According to the assessment by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, the “lion population is inferred to have undergone a reduction of approximately 43% over the past 21 years” and is estimated to number between 23,000 and 39,000 mature individuals. For the tiger the IUCN observes “a range decline much greater than 50% over the last three generations ([…] 21 years)” and the number of estimated mature individuals lies between 2154 and 3159 in a severely fragmented population.
Some justify captive breeding as conservation, but even if there was an intention to release these animals into the wild (and there usually isn’t; exploitation for profit, green-washed as education, is often the goal) there are very few legitimate re-introduction programs and there is simply no place for them to go without protection and restoration of their habitat and the creation of corridors between their fragmented ranges. That is true conservation — where effort and money should be spent.
In terms of conservation, ligers are irrelevant. The ligers brought into existence can live out their lives, well cared for, in sanctuaries like Wildlife Waystation. No new ones should be created, bred for a life of captivity, to generate profit to satisfy human greed.
The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), the accrediting body for zoos, does not approve of ligers, said spokesperson Steve Feldman, but some AZA zoos have displayed them in the past. Another AZA spokesperson, Jane Ballentine, said that accredited zoos frown on the practice of mixing two different species. “Keeping the two species separate has always been standard procedure,” she said.
We have moved beyond the Cartesian idea of non-human animals as simple, senseless and emotionless automata and beyond the biblical belief of an exploit-as-we-please dominion over other species. With ever stringent animal welfare legislation, the slow recognition of animal culture in, for instance, tool-use and communication and with the emerging concepts of non-human personhood and animal rights, the deliberate breeding of hybrids that have no place in nature can only be judged as unethical and should be abandoned.