By Sarah Hartwell
I recently drafted the genealogies of white tigers from Mohan in the 1950s through to the zoo population in the 1990s. It’s something I’ve been studying since the late 1990s with the help of 2 people in the USA (one a former zoo-keeper who moved there from England). I’m now making enquiries to bring it more up-to-date. What you’ll see from the charts is a horrific level of inbreeding being used to mass-produce white tigers for zoos, circuses and private owners – multiple levels of brother-sister or father-daughter matings.
I’ve put these all online to try to educate people that white tigers are the result of generations of unhealthy breeding practices.
The snow white tigers can all trace their ancestry to an extremely inbred individual (Bhim) and because they also have Amur tigers in their family tree they are not pure Bengal tigers and are considered “genetic junk” (so they cannot be released into the wild because they would pollute the orange Bengal tiger population with Amur tiger genes). Some may have Indo-Chinese ancestry as that subspecies was not considered distinct from Bengal tigers when the white tigers were originally bred.
Far from being an endangered species, they are the equivalent of a cat breed such as a Persian cat and are bred for exhibition, not for conserving wild tigers. They take up space in zoos that could be used for protecting and conserving the genuine subspecies of tigers. Although many zoos and owners refer to outcrossing their white tigers to unrelated white tigers, in practice those unrelated white tigers are descended from the same ancestors.
The best that can be said for white tigers is that they attract people to zoos and the entrance money can be used to support genuine conservation efforts. On the other hand there are facilities that call themselves “conservation parks” in the USA that are white tiger mills, churning out horrifically inbred white tigers for private owners. The genetic mistakes born in those tiger mills are either destroyed or off-loaded onto tiger rescue organisations (for example the inbred pug-faced white tiger Kenny who lived at Turpentine Creek).
Siegfriend & Roy claimed to have helped save “Royal White Tigers. Actually they’ve just perpetuated white mongrel tigers, but let’s not allow facts to get in the way of media hype and self-advertising. They were the first to selectively breed stripeless white tigers, which they did by mating Sitarra to her brother Neva i.e. even more inbreeding. Sitarra and Neva’s parents were also brother and sister.
Generations of inbreeding have caused other recessive genes to emerge, resulting in the golden tiger (also called golden tabby tiger). These have never been recorded in the wild. One private breeder, whose records are not available to outsiders, is also selectively breeding stripeless light-brown tigers – I shudder to think how much inbreeding it has taken to fix that colour type.
As if the excessive inbreeding isn’t enough, white tigers are sometimes crossed to lions to give white (pale yellow really) ligers.