16 April 2011

The unappreciated tragedy of white tigers

Excerpts from an Encyclopedia Britannica story:
We respond intensely to the bold orange-and-black felines, and sometimes even more so to the almost mystical white tiger. Their ghostly white appearance and searing blue eyes are difficult to ignore. Because we are fascinated with things we consider to be rare–like gold–we value the white tiger for its rarity, and find a ready rationalization for perpetuating its existence...

But if there is any issue for which the white tiger is a poster child, it is our faulty understanding of conservation. The headlines are all too familiar: this zoo or that performer is breeding white tigers to save them from extinction and restore them to their native habitats... The truth is difficult for many people to accept. White tigers are not a species and do not have a native habitat. Tigers do not inhabit any section of the globe in which it would be advantageous for their survival to be white...

What we call the “royal” white tiger is in fact a genetic anomaly, caused by a double recessive gene occurring so rarely in nature that experts estimate that only one in every 10,000 tigers born in the wild is white. This anomaly, called “leucism,” prevents the pigment from coloring the skin and fur and, more importantly, robs the animal of a main tool for survival—camouflage... “when a deleterious recessive genetic mutation randomly occurs that is disadvantageous for the survival of the animal, such as white color in a tropical jungle environment, the animal does not survive to pass on that genetic mutation or disadvantageous characteristic to its offspring" (italics added). In other words, cruel as it may sound, nature does not provide a place for the white tiger...

If nature is designed to prevent the survival of genetic mutations that are a danger to the survival of an entire species, then why do we see white tigers in zoos and circuses across the United States? The answer is simple: they are produced by inbreeding. In an essay published on the Web site of Save the Tiger Fund, Ron Tilson, conservation director of the Minnesota Zoo, writes: “to produce white tigers or any other phenotypic curiosity, directors of zoos and facilities must continuously inbreed, father to daughter, to granddaughter, and so on.”..

And there is a price to be paid for it. White tigers endure a host of health problems about which the public is largely unaware, including immune system deficiencies that cause many to live miserable and short lives, scoliosis of the spine, hip dysplasia, neurological disorders, cleft palates, and protruding, bulging eyes. Many are stillborn and many more turn out to be too deformed to display...

The trade in white tigers is lucrative. White tiger cubs have fetched as much as $60,000 a piece. According to Tilson, “white tigers are an aberration artificially bred and proliferated by a few zoos, private breeders, and circus folks, who do this for economic rather than conservation reasons.”
More at the link, via Reddit, where "teacup dogs" are also discussed (I'll try to blog that later).  Photo credits to Big Cat Rescue.


  1. I didn't know about that, but I'm not surprised. I'm not against people making money from the ownership of exotics, as long as it's done ethically. It can even be beneficial for animals to have a 'job' under some circumstances. Unfortunately, greed trumps ethics in a significant number of people.

    Correct me if my understanding of genetics is flawed here, but shouldn't it be feasible to introduce new genes into the white tiger pool? If the healthiest examples of white tigers were bred to the very healthiest orange tigers, all the offspring will have one orange gene and one white one. Then when the offspring are crossbred, a quarter of the resulting cubs will be white, and hopefully have far improved genetics from their two orange grandparents. It would take time and care, but hopefully there are enough breeders with ethics and foresight to make it work. Or perhaps the genetics of tiger color are more complicated than that.

    Failing that, I'm sure genetic engineering will get us there soon enough!

  2. I am not sure how this is any more tragic than designer dog and cat breeding.

    It is done by the same process.

    With most breeds this all happened hundreds of years ago so there are large enough populations now that inbreeding is a remote concern.

    Perhaps it is because humans identify themselves with the tiger more than the do. We are fellow apex predators, and old rivals.

  3. These two have what looks like squashed-in faces, similar to Persian cats. I checked some other photos of white tigers, and their faces looked normal. I wonder what that's about.

    --Swift Loris

  4. Considering people's obsession with smush-face animals like pug dogs and Persian cats, you'd think smush-face tigers would be more popular...

  5. Ps-
    Swift Loris, there probably aren't many pictures of smushed-face tigers like these two because of two reasons. One, the tigers deemed 'ugly' aren't shown to the public (meaning, no one gets the chance to take their picture), and two, if they are shown to the public, the public doesn't want to take their pictures. It's kind of a negative feedback cycle.

  6. "Tigers do not inhabit any section of the globe in which it would be advantageous for their survival to be white..."

    What about, say, the Siberian tiger? Isn't their habitat one where it's advantageous to be white? Or are they not tigers now?

  7. Note: Just nitpicking there, by the way. I'm not taking issue with the other parts of what they say.

  8. Clarification: What I'm saying is, even though Siberian tigers aren't white, wouldn't that coloration be advantageous to them, since they live in snowy areas?

  9. I would suppose that whatever advantage was gained by being white in winter would be negated by being white in spring, summer, and fall.

    In other words, if it were advantageous to their survival to be white, they would be white. As it is, Wikipedia says the coloration of their winter coat is "less bright" than their summer coat. That appears to be sufficient for their survival (if humans didn't coexist with them).

  10. On a similar subject, please don't support the animal exhibitors that charge for pictures with baby tigers (or other animals) at fairs and the like. They generally breed animals for that purpose (while misleading the public about conservation, including the white tiger conservation nonsense) and then basically warehouse them or even sell them to canned hunt operations once they're too old to be handled by the public. Lots of people out there just see animals as dollar signs, and the more people fall for it, the longer they'll be able to keep doing it.

  11. Mel V stated: "I'm not against people making money from the ownership of exotics, as long as it's done ethically."

    There is no way for the average owner to ethically house a Tiger. In the wild, the territories they roam are roughly 8 square miles, (5120 acres). Tigers have adapted into being an animal that requires a lot of space, in order to live comfortably. Comparatively, forcing a Tiger to live its life caged is inhumane. Also, adult male Tigers do not tolerate other males within their range. Having other male Tigers housed nearby causes them to live under almost constant stress.

    Unlike dogs, who have been our companions for 12,00-17,000 years, tigers are not domesticated. They are ill-adapted to a life with humans. Solitary by nature, they don't seek, or need, our companionship. It is instead forced upon them by humans.

    What's the best thing that humans can do for tigers? Preserve their habitat, and leave them alone to live wild and free. Tigers only remain in 7% or their original range, with a 41% decrease in range over the last ten years. Three of the nine tiger subspecies are already extinct. It is estimated that 15,000 tigers live in cages in the US alone, while there are only 3,000 left in the wild.

    Additionally, those who make claims of preserving tigers by keeping them as pets are misguided. Most tigers kept in the US are cross breeds from the remaining six subspecies. Each of these subspecies are adapted to live within their own unique ecosystems. A cross-bred tiger has lost many of these adaptations, and has no value in the future replacement of wild tiger populations.


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