White tigers are not albinos or different subspecies of a tiger, such as a snow tiger. A recessive gene inherited from both parents is the cause of the white coloration. Roughly 1 out of 10,000 tigers are born with this rare genetic mutation, called leucism. Leucism causes the tiger to lose pigmentation in its skin and fur. With only around 3,900 tigers currently left in the wild, it is doubtful that one will ever be born again in a natural setting. Even if one is born in the wild, having a white coat is a disadvantage to hunting, camouflage, and protection from danger and poachers.
So, why are there over 200 white tigers in captivity today?
History of the White Tiger
In the early 1900s, over 100,000 tigers were roaming their natural habitat throughout Asia. Historically, white tigers only occurred sporadically. In 1958, hunters shot and killed the last recorded white tiger found in India. Mohan, a white tiger cub, was found with his orange mother and siblings in 1951. The hunters shot and killed the orange cats; but, they captured Mohan for his unique coloration and to use him for breeding. First, Mohan was bred back to an unrelated orange female, producing all orange cubs. Then, they bred Mohan to his daughter, and the first captive white litter was born. All white tigers that exist are descendants of Mohan and his daughter.
How Does it Happen?
Each cub inherits two genes for coat color from their parents. Some genes are more dominant than others.
For tigers, the orange coloration is the dominant gene, and the white coloration is the recessive gene. To demonstrate the occurrence of a white tiger in the wild, we have created a Punnett square below.
We use the capital letter “T” to represent the dominant orange allele and a lower case “t” to describe the recessive white allele. The parents are both orange tigers that are carriers of the recessive white gene (Tt). The coloration of their cubs are as follows:
- Tt – one orange allele, one white allele (this tiger will be orange)
- TT – both orange alleles (this tiger will be orange)
- tt – both white alleles (this tiger will be white)
When bred together, only one cub from the litter will be white (tt). Depending on the genetics of the parents, white tiger mothers do not always give birth to white cubs; they can also have orange cubs. If only one parent is white, only 1 of 4 tiger cubs will be born white. This slim occurrence leads to improper breeding practices and exacerbates the chance for health and genetic defects.
White Tiger Breeding Today
Today’s white tiger populations are primarily the product of selectively inbreeding closely related white tigers. Due to the small concentration of these individuals in captivity, pseudo-facilities find it easier to breed animals currently at their facility than to outsource for new genes. People pay top-dollar to view white tigers and use them for entertainment. So, breeders do not care about the massive amounts of health issues caused by inbreeding and speed breeding.
White tigers are beautiful, but their looks should not outweigh the health problems the animals have to suffer forever. Severe inbreeding causes destructive, critical health issues in tigers such as abnormal external and internal conditions and characteristics. These health issues often compromise the welfare and health of the animal and result in death.
Breeders will euthanize cubs that are not aesthetically pleasing or that have severe health issues because they cannot sell them. After white tiger cubs have surpassed their legal 12 weeks, or 30-pound weight limit, for cub petting practices, the entertainment industry exploits them further. Circuses, magic shows, or private owners are just a few of the places seeking white tigers.
The white-coloration gene is associated with the optic nerves wiring to the opposite sides of the brain. White tigers are predisposed to cross-eyes and terrible vision because of this switching. They can also often suffer from clubfeet, spinal deformities, hip dysplasia, kidney problems, defective organs, kidney disorders, cleft palates, and stillbirths. Orange cubs still experience all of the health defects but are not worth any money due to the color of their coat. Breeders may consider the orange cubs of the litter “throw-away tigers.”
Hurting Conservation Practices
“Recessive alleles (or any particular alleles) should neither be selected against nor selected for since doing so would lead to a loss of overall genetic diversity.”
White tigers serve no conservation value and only exist because humans think they are beautiful and exploit them for economic gain. Any credible facility will not endorse the breeding of white tigers. But, they will work to educate the world on why white tigers exist. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) banned the breeding of white tigers in 2008, and explain that intentional inbreeding causes…
“…abnormal, debilitating, and at times, lethal, external, and internal conditions and characteristics.”
Paying to view white tigers, participate in cub petting, and supporting the entertainment industry that exploits big cats does nothing for the conservation of wild animals.
How You Can Help
- Choosing not to patronize facilities that breed white tigers, allow cub petting, use them for entertainment, or keep them for personal pets is the best way to protect them.
- Passing the Big Cat Public Safety Act is urgent, and your support will increase higher the chances of this federal bill becoming enacted. Tell Congress they must act now to stop abuse, ban private ownership, and prevent excessive breeding of captive wildlife.
- Support true sanctuaries, accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS), like TCWR.
- Join us today to speak for white tigers and other captive exotic animals who are exploited by humans for financial gain—your voice matters.