Tigers have been popular since ancient times when they were kept in royal menageries and animal collections. Their popularity also continues throughout the 250-year history of modern zoos, as today, considering only the ISIS database, more than 1700 tigers live in 800 zoos all over the world. If we focus on the popularity of tigers, the success of white tigers is indisputable. Let us now examine the background of the success of these tigers, taking into account the positive and negative aspects.
A brief history
The first records of white tigers date back to 1820, when a stuffed white tiger was put on display in London’s Exeter Exchange menagerie (which was maintained from the second half of the 18th century to the beginning of the 19th century). Later on these animals appeared several times, especially in hunting records, as between 1892 and 1922 they were often part of kills in the northeastern provinces of India. The first live-caught white tiger arrived to Gulab Singh, Maharaja of Rewa in 1915. The animal lived in the Maharaja’s summer residence for five years, and after its death it was stuffed and presented as a gift to King George V, British monarch.
The father of all white tigers living today was taken to the court of Maharaja Martrand Singh on May 27th 1951 after its mother and two siblings were shot the previous day. This tiger was given the name Mohan. He was bred to a normal-coloured tigress, Begum in 1952, but all litters had orange-coloured cubs. Mohan was then bred to one of his daughters, Radha, producing the first captive-born white tiger cubs in 1958.
The story of white tigers living outside of India started shortly after. Mohini, one of the white cubs born in 1958, was taken to America at the age of two. This specimen was bred in a similar way at Washington Zoo as was his father in India – first to a normal-coloured tiger, later to one of her offsprings. This is how the first non-Indian white tiger cub was born, and how white tigers began conquering the world.
Against white tigers
We can see without even knowing a little about genetics that white tigers are severely inbred. As a result of inbreeding, white tigers often have physical deformities, the most common signs being crossed eyes, a curved spine and the shortening of tendons and ligaments in legs. The reproduction rate is much lower in white tigers than in their normal-coloured kin and their expected lifespan is shorter. Owing to the high rate of inbreeding these animals have been subjected to, white tigers are "worthless" in terms of genetic viability, even if new normal-coroured blood lines are introduced into the breeding of these animals from time to time. White tigers have no conservation value, first of all, due to the above mentioned reasons, and secondly, because these white specimens only occur as very rare mutations in the wild (an estimated 1 in 10000 tiger cubs will be white). It is questionable whether a white tiger would be viable in the wild, if it could hunt successfully without its prey noticing it prematurely.
All this is important because all subspecies of tigers are highly endangered: the species is classified endangered on the IUCN Red List and two (Panthera tigris amoyensis, P. t. sumatrae) from the extant six subsbecies are classified critically endangered. Three subspecies have already become extinct. It is estimated that less than 4000 tigers can be found in the wild, and according to the international studbook, 1491 specimens of pure-bred tiger subspecies lived in captivity in 2012. These numbers show us that the captive population of tigers may have a great significance in the future.
We do not know the exact number of white tigers. Around 200 specimens live in zoos all around the world, but private collections and circuses may keep far more than this. As these animals are large carnivores, 200 is a significant number regarding the survival of captive tigers. This is why nature conservation specialists agree that the space, money and energy invested in white tigers should be used to breed tigers that belong to pure subspecies that have normal coloured fur and are not inbred, and therefore have good genetics.
Beside white tigers
We cannot ignore the facts that stand beside white tigers. Presumably, the most important goal and duty of zoos is to raise awareness, to teach and increase the knowledge of people, thus educating them to protect and conserve nature. The most effective tool for zoos to accomplish this is to introduce live animals to the visitors. It is much easier to urge people to save a given species or habitat if they can meet and familiarize themselves with live animals representing their species or habitat. As white tigers still count as sensations and attract a larger number of visitors than their normal-coloured kin, they can be even more effective embassadors of wild tigers and their habitats.
It is also an important angle for zoos to use a species for marketing purposes. Since white tigers are outstanding in this aspect due to their great popularity, they can attract a greater number of visitors and they can also draw the attention of potential sponsors.
Both views are understandable and it is natural that everyone will judge white tigers according to their own principles and interests.