People are fascinated with the size, the ghostly pale coloration and striking, blue eyes of white tigers. The white tiger has become such a popular attraction that many people believe it to be a separate subspecies. This is often accompanied by the assumption that since the orange and black tiger is critically endangered, the white tiger must be even closer to extinction. This could not be more false. The zoo & circus white tiger is a sideshow animal, bred to feed the public’s fascination with freaks.
The white coat of the white tiger is a result of a homozygous (double) recessive gene, so far found only in the Bengal subspecies. No white Siberian tigers have been born in captivity, despite the fact that the subspecies has been extensively bred. All white tigers have Bengal genes in them.
A mutation – in this case the substitution of a single amino acid for another, valine for alanine, in a transporter protein, named SLC45A2 – causes a lack of the pigment pheomelanin that would otherwise color the skin and hair. This results in the tigers’ white fur with chocolate-brown stripes, blue eyes and a pinkish nose. It is not albinism – the absence of pigment – as pigment is evident in the white tiger’s dark stripes and eye coloration.
One recessive allele has to come from each parent to allow for the ‘expression’ of the white color.
The rarity of the trait in natural populations, an estimated one in every 10,000 tigers – only around 3000 tigers being alive in the wild today – is strong evidence that it represents a disadvantage under most circumstances. The lack of camouflage would probably lead to fewer hunting successes.
Rare alleles can become relatively common in species that have been hunted to the brink of extinction if the recessive gene is accidentally present in the extremely reduced gene pool of the few survivors. This has happened in Antarctic fur seals, where today pups are regularly born as leucetic ‘golden’ seals.
Since these alleles are naturally rare, inbreeding becomes a necessity to create the white color morph for those who want to make a profit from selling and/or displaying white tigers. Breeding closely related individuals increases the chance that the same two rare and recessive alleles will be present in both parents and can be transmitted to their offspring together.
A tiger or lion with a white coat is thus usually produced through relentless inbreeding – brother to sister, father to daughter, mother to son – generation after generation after generation.
In 1951 the Maharaja of Rewa killed a tigress with four 9-month-old cubs, one of which was white. All of them were shot except for the white cub. The white cub was captured and housed in an unused palace. The Maharaja named him Mohan, one of the names of Krishna. Mohan was bred to a normal-colored tiger, called Begum throughout the 1950s, without producing a single white cub. Mohan was then bred to his daughter Radha born in April 1955 from Begum’s second litter who carried the white gene inherited from her father. The four resulting cubs, a male named Raja, and three females named Rani, Mohini and Sukeshi, were the first white tigers born in captivity, on October 30, 1958. Raja and Rani went to the New Delhi Zoo and Mohini to Washington’s National Zoo. Sukeshi stayed with her grandfather to breed more incestuous, white tigers.
India issued a ban on the export of white tigers that same year to monopolize the breeding and tourist attraction, but the Maharaja of Rewa pressured the government to be allowed to sell some of ‘his’ white tigers abroad. Under this exception white tigers travelled to Bristol and Miami. The others spread out over India’s zoos.
The white tigers remained a single extended, inbred family. Roop, for instance was the son of Raja by his own mother and half sister, Radha, born in New Delhi.
Mohan died in 1970, aged almost 20. He is the last confirmed white tiger born in the wild.
Mohini, Mohan’s daughter, who was bought for the National Zoo in Washington just before the export ban, was a popular attraction and the zoo wanted to breed more white tigers. As no white tigers were allowed out of India, Mohini was mated to Sampson, a normal-colored son of Mohan and Begum, Mohini’s half brother and uncle, brother of her mother Radha, who had arrived from Ahmedabad Zoo in 1963. Sampson fathered the first two of Mohini’s four litters, which were born in 1964 and 1966. The first litter produced one white cub and two orange cubs, but only the orange male Ramana, born on July 1, 1964, survived. The white male named Rajkumar and the orange female named Ramani both died of feline distemper at ten months of age.
The second litter produced two more orange cubs; one female was stillborn, but the other female named Kesari survived. Sampson died in 1966, at age 11 of kidney failure.
Mohini was then bred to her normal-colored son Ramana, who was the only known male white-gene carrier available in the USA.
The union between Mohini and Ramana resulted in the birth of a white daughter named Rewati on April 13, 1969 and a white son named Moni on Feb. 8, 1970. Moni was born in a litter of five, which included two white males and three orange females. One was stillborn and mother Mohini crushed the others after three days. Moni died of a neurological disorder in 1971 at 16 months of age.
Rewati had a normal-colored brother that died after two days.
On June 20, 1974 while at the Cincinnati Zoo during renovations in Washington, Ramana and Kesari, normal-colored brother and sister from different Mohini litters, produced a litter of three white and one normal-colored cub. The white male was named Ranjit, two white females were named Bharat and Priya, and an orange male was named Peela. Ranjit was eventually sent to the Henry Doorly Zoo, the other siblings returned to the National Zoo.
Ramana died in 1974 of a kidney infection. Mohini died in 1979 at 20 years of age.
Kubla, registered as a Siberian tiger was born in a zoo in Minesota. His parents were born in the wild and believed to be brother and sister. Kubla was bred to a Bengal tigress named Susie, from a zoo in South Dakota. Between 1966 and 1969, Kubla and Susie produced 13 or 14 cubs in 5 or 6 litters. Two of their cubs, Rajah and Sheba II, were bred by Baron Julius Von Uhl who lived in Peru, Indiana. There, in July 1972, Tony was born, a new white tiger.
That same month, Baghera, a female, was born in a litter of two white cubs of which the male did not survive. Her mother was Sheba III, a sister of Tony’s mother. The father was either an Amur tiger, named Ural or one of two of Sheba III’s brothers, named Prince and Saber. Sheba III conceived another white cub, a male named Frosty, born on Feb. 25, 1975, in a litter, which included two normal-colored females and one normal-colored male. Ural might have been the father (again). He was cross-eyed and so were Bagheera and Frosty. Raja and Sheba II also produced two more white cubs, a male and a female, in a litter with one normal-colored male. These three were all sold to Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus.
Tony, on loan from John Cuneo of the Hawthorne Corporation, was eventually bred to Mohini’s normal-colored daughter Kesari of the Rewa-strain by the Cincinnati Zoo, resulting in a litter of four white and one orange cub in 1976, all were cross-eyed.
Sumita and Bhim, two of the white siblings from this litter, were bred to each other repeatedly. An additional genetic condition makes the stripes of a (white) tiger very pale, turning the animal almost pure white. Sumita and Bhim produced white cubs with stripes and cubs that had almost no stripes and they are the source of the existing strain of snow-white tigers. In April 1983 a litter of 3 white cubs, including the first pure white tiger born were sold to ‘magicians’ Siegfried & Roy and formed the foundation stock for their white tiger breeding program.
In this way, the only two strains of white tigers known-to-exist – the Indian Rewa strain and the USA strain, the decisive gene of which probably originated in Susie – were intertwined.
Another color variation that came out of the ‘pure’ white strain was the unusually light-orange coating called ‘golden tabby’. These are probably normal-colored, orange tigers that carry the stripe-less gene as a recessive.
By the end of 1976 there were thirty-nine white tigers, seventeen in India (seven in Delhi, seven in Kolkata, one in Guwahati, one in Lucknow and one in Hyderabad), eight in Bristol, UK, and fourteen in the USA (Cincinnati Zoo had two, Washington had five, John Cuneo of Hawthorn Circus had five, and Julius Von Uhl had two).
Over seventy white tigers have been born at the Cincinnati Zoo. Siegfried & Roy bought a litter of three white cubs from them and by the mid 1980s that circus act owned ten percent of the world’s white tigers.
More white tigers were bred at the Henry Doorly Omaha Zoo in Nebraska from Tony’s normal-colored sister Obie and white Ranjit, son of Ramana and Kesari, again mixing the Bengal Rewa strain with the Siberian origins of Kubla.
This zoo tried to improve the health of the white tiger gene pool by pairing Rangit with normal colored tigresses Mus Kative, Soma and Tanya to built a stock of heterozygous tigers. The sons and daughters of Ranjit by the different mothers were then crossed to produce litters of both orange and white tigers. The zoo also purchased heterozygous tigers Rajah and Sheba II and their daughter Obie from Baron Von Uhl of Shrine Circus to enhance the gene pool. Ranjit was bred to Obie and produced litters of white and orange cubs.
In May 1984, a white female was born to a pair of orange tigers in the Racine Zoological Garden. The father was Chiquita, brother of white tiger Tony, and the mother was Bonnie, who was born at the Racine Zoo. Her father Bucky came from the Indianapolis Zoo. When Bonnie was ‘accidentally’ bred to her father Bucky they produced a litter of white and orange cubs in 1982, revealing that Bucky carried the recessive white-fur gene and had passed it on to his daughter.
At Columbus Zoo, Ohio, Ika, a three-legged white female tiger on loan from the Hawthorn Corporation was paired with a heterozygous female, Dally on lean from Cincinnati Zoo. In 1986 they produced a litter of 2 orange and one white cub.
Today several hundred white tigers are kept in captivity worldwide, with about one hundred of them found in Indian zoos.
In 1980, three white tigers were born at Nandankanan Zoo in Bubaneswar in the Indian state of Orissa. Their parents were a normal-colored father–daughter pair called Deepak and Ganga, unrelated to Mohan or other captive white tigers. One of their wild-caught ancestors must have carried the recessive white gene that showed when Deepak was mated to his daughter.
The zoo already had a white tiger, named Diana that came from New Delhi Zoo. One of the three 1980-born white tigers was later bred to her creating a blend of the Orissa and Rewa strains of white tigers. Today the Nandankanan Zoo has the largest ‘collection’ – more than thirty – of white tigers in India. The Cincinnati Zoo acquired two female white tigers from the Nandankanan Zoo, in the hope of establishing a line of pure-Bengal white tigers in America, but they never got a male, and by then no longer received authorization from AZA, the Association of Zoos & Aquariums.
AZA had first been warned in 1983 by William Conway, director of the New York Zoological Association of the harm to the zoos’ credibility in catering to the public’s fascination with freaks. It took AZA a while to see the light.
In the pet trade the white trait in domestic cats is associated with an increased occurrence of deafness and breeding for ’merle’ coats in dogs is known to create deafness and eye disorders in combination with a mostly white pelt with some black spots.
In a similar way the mutation of a white coat and the kind of severe inbreeding that is required to produce white tigers, causes a number of other defects in these big cats.
The same gene that ‘expresses’ the white coat causes some optic nerves to be wired to the wrong side of the brain. This abnormality of the visual pathways in the brain, results in a visual impairment named strabismus (squint or crossed eyes). The non-alignment of the eyes prevents binocular focus resulting in poor depth perception. Strabismus is associated with white tigers of mixed Bengal-Siberian ancestry. The only pure-Bengal white tiger reported to be cross-eyed was Mohini’s daughter Rewati. Strabismus is directly linked to the white gene and is not a separate consequence of inbreeding.
White tigers can also suffer from clubfoot, shortened tendons of the forelegs, cleft palates, scoliosis (curvature or arching) of the spine, mental impairments, immune deficiencies, hip dysplasia, bulging eyes, kidney problems and defective organs.
Even apparently healthy white tigers generally do not live as long as their normal-colored counterparts.
Through their ‘manufacturing’ process, white tigers are burdened with a double load of poor hereditary traits. They will suffer the health problems directly associated with the white coat itself and the health and welfare consequences related to intensive inbreeding, called breeding depression, such as congenital deformities, decline in overall fitness and fertility, increased susceptibility to disease and infection and shortened lifespan, miscarriages and stillbirth.
Because the white coat is the result of a doubling of recessive genes, most of the cubs born in these breeding attempts have the normal, but undesired coloring. They might, however, still suffer the defects resulting from inbreeding.
In Europe the cruelty associated with breeding for rare traits has led to various legislative efforts to discourage the intentional breeding for rare recessive alleles with known potential health and welfare concerns.
In June 2011 the board of directors for the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) affirmed their ban on the breeding of white tigers, white lions and king cheetahs by their member zoos with the approval of a paper named ‘Welfare and Conservation Implications of Intentional Breeding for the Expression of Rare Alleles”. In this paper AZA’s Animal Welfare Committee’s Taskforce on Animal Breeding Practices declared:
“Breeding practices that increase the physical expression of single rare alleles (i.e., rare genetic traits) through intentional inbreeding, for example intentional breeding to achieve rare color-morphs such as white tigers, deer, and alligators, has been clearly linked with various abnormal, debilitating, and, at times, lethal, external and internal conditions and characteristics, which are outlined in this paper. Many of these conditions may seriously compromise the welfare of individual animals. In addition, such breeding practices are also problematic from a population management and conservation perspective, impairing our ability to develop and maintain sustainable captive populations for the future and to deliver appropriate animal welfare and conservation education messages.”
With this they formalized the existing ban of July 2008, resulting from AZA’s Board-approved Policy on the Presentation of Animals of that date, which maintains that “…animals should always be presented according to the following core principles:
- Animal and human health, safety, and welfare are never compromised.
- Education and a meaningful conservation messages are integral components of the presentation
- The individual animals involved are consistently maintained in a manner that meets their social, physical, behavioral, and nutritional needs.”
AZA’s greatest worry stems from the fact that “…in some cases, there exists the misconception that these unusual color morphs, or other phenotypic aberrations, may represent a separate endangered species in need of conservation.”
Therefore “[p]ropagating animals that specifically do not represent the normal characteristics and variation of the species creates a confused educational message.”
White tigers serve no conservation purpose. Most white tigers are highly inbred crosses between Bengal and Amur/Siberian tigers.
About 10% of North American zoo tigers were white in the late 1980s. In India that is close to a third.
If zoos want to achieve their professed goals of education and assistance in conservation efforts, the intentional inbreeding for the production of anomalous phenotypes is in direct contrast to that mission. The health of a population is enhanced through maximizing genetic diversity, the opposite of intentional inbreeding.
The white tiger is a caged ‘product’ of man’s manipulation and greed. The only reason white tigers are being bred, is because people will pay to see white tigers in zoos and circuses. This results in more white tigers with potential health problems and an excess of unwanted, orange and black tigers born within these litters. These normal-colored tigers are, however, still inbred and crossbred, and thus, from a conservation perspective, valueless. If not destroyed at birth as ‘throw-away’ tigers they might end up in the pet trade, being drugged for photo ops, living miserable lives in roadside zoos, persecuted in canned hunts or sold and killed for parts to the Asian ‘traditional medicine’ industry.
Sanctuaries like Wildlife Waystation not only provide a place where some of these white and ‘throw-away’ tigers can live out the rest of their lives, but also try their best to educate the public about the horrors surrounding the breeding of white tigers.
The white tigers in the photos are living at Wildlife Waystation together with several normal-colored tigers. Ginseng is a white tiger boy, born in 2001. His mother, Kashmir, was born in 1995. They both came from a movie animal facility in 2005.