Rare black tigers – pseudo-melanistic tigers – photographed in India

NEWS AND COMMENT – EASTERN INDIA: An amateur photographer, Satya Swagat, 23, had the good fortune to be in the right place at the right time with this camera. He was in the Nandankanan National Park in eastern India. Satya Swagat said that he got goosebumps when he first saw them. He was about 30 feet away when he took the photographs of these extremely rare variants of the Bengal tiger.

He calls the black tigers that he photographed “melanistic tigers”. He said: “I got goose-bumps when I first saw the melanistic tiger”.

I think that description is slightly wrong. These tigers are better described as “pseudo-melanistic tigers”. True melanistic tigers are black all over with faint, ghost markings. In this instance we have a couple of tigers with very wide black stripes which merge at the rear of the animal.

Pseudo-melanistic tigers have thick stripes which are so close together that they merge to obscure the tawny background. It is said that there are becoming more common because of inbreeding. Inbreeding allows the recessive hidden genes to express themselves in a variation to the phenotype (appearance) of the tiger.

Sarah Hartwell tells us that “the gene that turns a tabby-striped felid into a solid colour one is the non-agouti gene”. It is recessive to the normal agouti gene. It can be carried for many generations by striped animals without ever showing its presence in terms of the appearance of the animal. The mass persecution of tigers in the early 1900s by trophy hunting Europeans together with continuing habitat destruction has reduced tiger numbers and fragmented their population. This causes inbreeding which may be why this amateur photographer chanced upon this couple of black tigers recently.

The phrase “pseudo-melanistic” comes about because these are not true melanistic tigers but tigers with thick black stripes. The word ‘pseudo’ means not genuine.

To stress, the reason why pseudo-melanistic tigers are perhaps becoming more visible in India is because, as mentioned, inbreeding. This is due to the reduction in the amount of space that tigers have due to the pressures of human population growth and commercialisation of the available space.

Sarah Hartwell, usefully provides a very extensive history of the black tiger. I won’t go over the entire history but would refer you to her page on the topic. Hartwell is one of the world’s experts on cat genetics and big cat mutants. She mentioned that a pseudo-melanistic tiger cub was born in Oklahoma zoo. Sadly, the cub was killed by their mother. It was preserved in formaldehyde as a curiosity.

Pseudo-melanistic tiger cub born in Oklahoma Zoo
Pseudo-melanistic tiger cub born in Oklahoma Zoo. Image: messybeast.com

Apparently, there are references to black tigers in the early 1800s. Sarah Hartwell believes that a lot of these references were, in fact, to black leopards or black jaguars. It seems that a lot of people got mixed up between leopards and tigers or even merged the two. Some of these early sightings came from India and others from South America. The tiger is not present in South America. The reason is that the word “tiger” applied to a frightening big cat that was neither a lion or a leopard. In which case it was probably a jaguar.

Tigris melanotica
Tigris melanotica. Image in the public domain.

For example, there was an advert in the Carlisle Journal of September 18 8041 which mentions the “Black Tiger from the Brazils”. this is a reference to a black jaguar. Jaguars are similar in size to smaller-than-average tigers.

In 1846 the naturalist CT Buckland reported seeing a black tiger in the Chittagong Hills which are now in Bangladesh. The black tiger was preying on cattle. It was shot with a poisoned arrow. Buxton discovered the body, apparently.

You will also see pseudo-melanistic white tigers. These are the same but the background colour is white and they have wide, blotchy black stripes mainly over the hindquarters.

Since the 1970s, Hartwell tells us that there have been sporadic sightings of black tigers in the Similipal Tiger Reserve in Odisha. For instance, in the winter of 1975/76, to adult black tigers were seen on the road leading to Matughar meadow, south Similipal. A Forest service official saw them. He was accompanying a couple of tourists. And in 1991 a family of pseudo-melanistic tigers were seen in the upper Barakhamba Range in 1991. The sighting was dismissed as a mistaken identity.

Chinese literature contains references to black tigers but it is difficult to tell whether they were genuine sightings or misidentification for mythical beasts.

Here is a photo of Satya Swagat. He deserves a bit of publicity ?.

Satya Swagat
Satya Swagat. Photo: himself via CATERS NEWS.

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