Contrary to popular belief, the white tiger is not a separate subspecies of tiger. White tigers are actually Bengal tigers born with a rare genetic mutation of recessive alleles that causes leucism (white pigmentation). Roughly one in every 10,000 tigers is born with this genetic “fluke,” and with less than 4,000 tigers remaining in the wild, the odds of finding a wild white tiger are next to nothing.
How Does it Happen?
In order to understand how white tigers occur in nature, one must first understand the basic laws of genetics. Every living organism inherits genes from their parents, one from the mother and one from the father. These genes act as instruction manuals, telling the body what traits to express (eye color, hair color, etc.). Genes can either be dominant or recessive.
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). Furthermore, white tiger mothers do not always give birth to white cubs. For this reason, white tigers are exceedingly rare.
So why are there nearly 200 white tigers in captivity today?
History of the White Tiger
In 1951, hunters captured one of the last remaining wild white tigers, a two-year old cub that was later named Mohan. Mohan was gifted to the Maharaja of Rewa, who was extremely impressed with the young tiger’s striking appearance. Shortly thereafter, the Maharaja began a breeding program to create more white tigers.
The Indian prince first bred Mohan with an orange Tigress named Begum. This attempt proved unsuccessful, and Begum gave birth to a litter of ten orange cubs. Then, In 1958, Mohan was bred with one of his own daughters. A few months later, the first litter of white tiger cubs was born in captivity. That same year, hunters shot and killed the last wild white tiger in India.
All white tigers are descendants of Mohan today.
White Tigers Today
Today’s white tiger populations are primarily the product of selectively inbreeding closely related individuals. Due to the small concentration of these tigers in captivity, pseudo-facilities find it easier to breed the animals currently on-premises than to outsource for new genes.
People pay top-dollar to view white tigers, and breeders disregard the major health issues caused by inbreeding to make a hefty profit.
No one will deny that white tigers are beautiful creatures, but appearances should not outweigh the severe risks associated with inbreeding in captivity. Many white tigers are born with genetic defects such as clubbed feet, spinal deformities, hip dysplasia, kidney problems, cleft palates, and defective organs. Suffice to say, these animals have a very low quality of life.
In 2008, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) banned the breeding of white tigers, explaining that intentional inbreeding causes “…abnormal, debilitating, and at times, lethal, external, and internal conditions and characteristics.”
Breeders will often euthanize cubs that are not “aesthetically pleasing.”
No Conservation Value
“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” (Lacy, 2000).
White tigers serve no conservation value and only exist today because of human greed. Breeders and entertainers continuously spread the myth that white tigers are an endangered species, but this couldn’t be farther from the truth. White tigers are not a species; they don’t exist in the wild. Any credible facility will not endorse or partake in the breeding of white tigers.
How You Can Help
- Don’t patronize facilities that breed white tigers, allow cub-petting, or use animals for entertainment.
- Contact your local legislators and urge them to pass the Big Cat Safety Act, a federal bill that, if enacted, will prohibit private ownership of exotic big cats throughout the United States (and ban cub-petting).
- Support true sanctuaries accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS).