Most people think white tigers are a different subspecies. Fact is neither they are different subspecies nor albinos. They are rather mutant variants of the existing subspecies. The colour is due to a recessive gene that creates the pale coloration. In addition to this another genetic characteristic makes the stripes very pale. White tigers belonging to this type are known as “pure white” or snow-white. They can breed with the normal orange tigers, although nearly half of the resulting cubs will be heterozygous (having both the genes different) for the recessive white gene, and they will be having orange fur.
The only exception would be if the orange parent was itself already a heterozygous. This would give each offspring 50 per cent chance of being either double-recessive white or heterozygous orange. If two heterozygotes or heterozygous tigers breed on average 25 per cent of their cubs would be white, 50 per cent will be heterozygous orange (carriers of the white gene) and 25 per cent would be homozygous (having identical alleles or forms for a single trait) orange, with no white genes. In Alipore Zoo in Kolkata (West Bengal, India), 13 cubs were born to a pair of heterozygous orange tigers – Ravi and Shashi – in 1970s. Out of these 3 were white cubs. According to experts if two whites breed, 100 per cent of their cubs would be homozygous whites. If any tiger is homozygous for the white gene may also be homozygous or heterozygous for many different genes. Inbreeding in general, promotes homozygosity so it is being used to produce white tigers.
White tigers as compared to orange ones tend to be larger and well built both at birth and at full adult size. Perhaps, this gives them an advantage in the wild despite their unusual coloration. Heterozygous orange tigers also tend to be larger than other orange tigers. Former director of the Delhi Zoo Kailash Sankhala once said “One of the functions of the white gene may have been to keep a size gene in the population, in case it’s ever needed.”
White tigers with dark-stripes are well-documented in the Bengal Tiger subspecies, also known as the Royal Bengal or Indian tiger, (Panthera tigris tigris) or (P. t. bengalensis). Possibly, it may also have occurred in other tiger species or subspecies. Usually it is the Indian or Bengal subspecies that have been most closely associated with white pelage. According to an estimate several hundred white tigers, with both pure Bengal and hybrid Bengal-Siberians are currently in captivity worldwide. Despite many researches it is not clear whether the recessive gene for white tigers came from Bengal tigers or from any of the Siberian ancestors as well.
According to the facts available (January 2014) there are 100 white tigers in 22 zoos across India. Of these 40 are males, 55 females and 5 new born. Five of the six cubs born around 20th January 2014 to a seven-year-old white tigress, Kalpana, and her seven-year-old mate, Vijay, at the National Zoological Park in New Delhi have died soon after they were born while the sixth was reported to be critical.
White Siberian Tigers or Amur tiger
Despite the occasional reports of sightings of white tigers in the land of wild Siberian tigers, existence of pure white Siberian or Amur tigers has not been scientifically proven. Experts are of the opinion that possibly the gene responsible for white coating does not exist in the population of this subspecies, since no pure white Siberian tiger has been born in captivity even though they have been extensively bred during the last few decades. The wild Siberian population nearly went extinct during the middle of the 20th century, so it may be possible the tigers carrying the gene for white coating died out during this period.
The white Siberian tigers found in captivity are in fact not pure Siberians. They are offspring of Siberian tigers that bred with Bengal tigers. The gene responsible for white coat is quite common among Bengal tigers, but the natural birth of a white Bengal tiger is still a very rare occasion in the wild, where white tigers are not bred selectively. White coat is caused by the occurrence of a double recessive allele in the genome. According to an estimate on an average one white tiger is born in 10,000 wild tiger births.
Golden tabby and stripe-less white tigers
An additional genetic condition can remove most of the striping of a white tiger, making it almost pure white. One such specimen was exhibited at Exeter Change in England in 1820, and described by Georges Cuvier as “A white variety of Tiger is sometimes seen, with the stripes very opaque, and not to be observed except in certain angles of light.”
The present strain of pure white tigers came from repeated brother-sister matings of Bhim and Sumita at Cincinnati Zoo. The gene involved may have come from a Siberian tiger, via their part-Siberian ancestor. Continued inbreeding appears to have caused a recessive gene for stripe-lessness to show up. About one fourth of Bhim and Sumita‘s offspring were stripe-less.
Earlier it was thought that the white tigers without stripes were sterile, but this misconception was removed when Siegfried & Roy’s stripe-less white tigress Sitarra, daughter of Bhim and Sumita, gave birth. Another variation that came out of the white strains was “golden tabby tigers”, unusually light-orange cats. While no official name has been given to the colour, it is sometimes, referred to as the “strawberry tiger.” These are probably orange tigers which carry the stripe-less white gene as a recessive. Some white tigers in India are very dark, between white and orange.
Like their white cousins, all the golden tabbys have mainly Bengal parentage, but are genetically polluted with the genes of the Siberian tiger via a part-Amur tiger called Tony, who is a common ancestor of almost all white tigers in North America. All golden tigers appear traceable to one of Tony’s male descendants, Bhim.
India has records of wild golden tigers that date back as far as the early 1900s. The last known Golden tigers were shot outside of Mysore Pradesh (India) in the early 20th century. But now there are less than 30 left in captivity.
Albinism and Genetics
As has been already mentioned white tigers are not albinos; true albinos would have no stripes. Even the “stripe-less” white tigers known today actually have very pale stripes. The above confusion is due to the misidentification of the so-called chinchilla gene (for white) as an allele of the albino series (material published before 1980s refer to it as an albino gene). The mutation is recessive to normal colour, which means that two orange tigers carrying the mutant gene may produce white offspring, and white tigers bred together will produce only white cubs. The stripe colour varies due to the influence and interaction of other genes.
While the inhibitor (“chinchilla”) gene affects the colour of the shaft of the hair, a separate “wide-band” gene affects the distance between the dark bands of colour on agouti hairs. A normal orange tiger that inherits two copies of this wide-band gene becomes a golden tabby; a white that inherits two copies becomes almost or completely stripe-less. Inbreeding allows the effect of recessive genes to show up, hence the ground and stripe colour variations among white tigers.
As early as 1907, naturalist Richard Lydeker doubted existence of albino tigers, but there is a report of true albinism. According to Victor N. Narayan in a ”Miscellaneous Note” in the Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society, two pink-eyed albino cubs were shot along with their mother at Mica Camp, Tisri, in the Cooch Behar district (India) in 1922. Animals were described as sickly-looking sub-adults, with extended necks and pink eyes.
Animals like, Himalayan rabbits, white tigers and Siamese cats have enzymes in their coat that reacts with temperature and grows darker in the cold environment. White tigers produce a mutated form of enzyme called tyrosinase, which is used in the production of melanin. It functions only at certain temperatures, more precisely, below 98° Fahrenheit. This is why Himalayan rabbits and Siamese cats are darker on tail, face, ears and legs (the colour points), where cold penetrates more easily. This is called acromelanism, and other cat breeds derived from the Siamese, such as the Himalayan and the snowshoe cat, also exhibit the same conditions. K.S. Sankhala, who was director of the New Delhi Zoo in the 1960s and was an expert on tigers, observed that white tigers were always whiter in Rewa (Madhya Pradesh, India), even when they were born in New Delhi and returned there. “In spite of living in a dusty courtyard, they were always snow white.” A weakened immune system is directly linked to reduced pigmentation in white tigers.
Melanin is a pigment that is ubiquitous or omnipresent in nature and is found in most organisms. In animals it is derived from the amino acid tyrosine. The most common form of biological melanin is eumelanin, a brown-black polymer of dihydroxyindole carboxylic acids, and their reduced forms. Some individuals, both humans and animals, have very little or no melanin in their bodies. This condition is known as albinism.
Problems with White tigers
Outside India, white tigers have been found to be prone to crossed eyes, a condition known as strabismus, an example of which is “Clarence the cross-eyed lion”, due to incorrectly routed visual pathways in the brains. Because of the visual pathway abnormality, by which some of the optic nerves are routed to the wrong side of the brain, these animals have a problem with spatial orientation, and bump into things until they learn to compensate. Some compensate by crossing their eyes. When the neurons pass from the retina to the brain and reach the optic chiasma, some cross and some do not, so that visual images are projected to the wrong hemisphere of the brain. White tigers cannot see as well as normal tigers and suffer from photophobia, like albinos.
It is a myth, that white tigers have an 80% infant mortality rate. In fact it is no higher than the normal orange tigers bred in captivity. Other genetic drawbacks include twisted neck, kidney problems and shortened tendons of the forelegs, club foot and arched or crooked backbone. Miscarriages and Reduced fertility, noted by “tiger man” Kailash Sankhala in pure-Bengal white tigers was attributed to inbreeding depression. A condition known as “star-gazing”, which is associated with inbreeding in big cats, has also been reported in white tigers. Some of the white tigers born to North American lines have bulldog faces with a snub nose, jutting jaw, domed head and wide-set eyes with an indentation between the eyes. However, some of these traits may be linked to poor diet rather than inbreeding.
Since the availability of the white tiger allele was extremely rare in the wild, the breeding pool was limited to the small number of white tigers in captivity. According to Kailash Sankhala, the last white tiger ever seen in the wild was shot in 1958. Today, white tigers are in such a large number in captivity that inbreeding is no longer necessary. A white Siberian tiger may have been born at Centre Hill and has given rise to a strain of white Amur tigers.
In some regions, animals form part of the local tradition. In certain parts of India white tigers were considered as the incarnation of a Hindu deity, and anyone who killed it would die within a year. Sumatran and Javan royalty claimed descent from white tigers, and they were regarded as the reincarnations of royalty. In Java white tigers were associated with the vanished Hindu kingdoms and with ghosts and spirits. It was also the icon guardian of the seventeenth century court. In China the animals were revered as the god of the West, Baihu (Byakko in Japan and Baek-ho in Korea), associated with autumn and metal. In South Korea, a white tiger is represented on the taegeuk emblem on the flag – the white tiger symbolising evil, opposite the green dragon for good.
According to the Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society (Centenary Supplement 1886-1986; Vol.83 supplement; dt. of publication: 13 April 1987; article – The Earliest Records of A White Tiger), “Mutant “white” tigers are fairly well documented phenomenon in India. This journal has recorded no less than 17 instances of “white” tigers being shot in India between 1907 and 1933 (Gee 1954), i.e. in a period of 16 years only, many of which are decorating museums in the UK and India. Several other instances are recorded of sightings and trophies of such animals as well. The most famous and recent case being that of Mohan the great white patriarch of Rewa (in the state of Madhya Pradesh in India), whose descendents stock the zoos the world over. There has been only one recorded instance of true albino tigers, this is of two cubs shot in Cooch Behar in 1922 (Narayan 1922).
Genetic mystery of Indian white tiger unravelled
Researchers from Asia have rejected the earlier theory, which says Royal Bengal Tigers or the Bengal Tigers turn white due to a genetic defect. They have claimed white tigers, though uncommon, are perfectly natural as their yellow and black stripe cousins. For about four decades scientific community believed that Bengal Tigers became white due to albinism – absence of the skin pigment melanin. They were of the opinion that it was similar to “albino”, a disorder caused by a defect in the genes.
A team of South Korean and Chinese researchers have dispelled this notion after mapping the genomes of a family of 16 tigers living in Chimelong Safari Park in China. The family comprised of both white, with white fur and dark stripes, pink paws, pink nose and blue eyes, and orange varieties.
Scientists could not find “albino” genes but they stumbled upon a new genetic mechanism which indicates that white coats are result of a single change in a known pigment gene. The analysis of genes led the team to a pigment gene SLC45A2, which had already been associated with light colouration in modern Europeans and in other animals, including mouse, horse, chicken and medaka fish.
The variant found in the white tiger primarily inhibits the synthesis of red and yellow pigments but has little to no effect on black, which explains why white tigers still show characteristic dark stripes. “White tiger represents part of the natural genetic diversity of the tiger that is worth conserving, but is now seen only in captivity,” Shu-Jin Luo of China’s Peking University said. The findings have been published in the journal Current Biology in May 2013.
The scientists have claimed that since white-skinned tigers were as natural as the yellow ones, they could be conserved in their natural habitat. It is worth considering because the tiger’s chief prey species, such as deer, are also colour-blind. They said captive white tigers sometimes do show abnormalities, such as crossed eyes. But those frailties may have been caused due to inbreeding.
After identifying the causal gene, the researchers plan to explore the evolutionary options that have maintained tigers in both orange and white varieties.
“The earliest known record of a “white” tiger in India, however, is that of the Mughal period (1526-1857) and more precisely of the year 1561 A.D. Emperor Akbar who ruled India from 1556 A.D. to 1605 A.D., caused his life and times to be recorded by his trusted courtier Abul Fazl. His “Akbar Namaa” became a detailed account of the Emperor’s reign.” Every painting in this book illustrates an episode in the life of the Emperor. There is a depiction of one incident in which Akbar’s cavalcade was attacked by tigers near Gwalior (Madhya Pradesh) in 1561 in the 5th regnal year (a year of the reign of a sovereign) when he was returning to Agra from Malwa. Akbar Namaa says the royal procession was attacked by a tigress and her five cubs.
This episode is illustrated with a double page painting. The right page shows young Akbar astride a black horse and killing the tigress with his sword, some of his courtiers are looking on. A “white” tiger lies disembowelled and dead below Akbar’s horse. Another normal coloured tiger has attacked a soldier and is in the process of being speared, while a third tiger again a “white” one, is being stabbed with a “khanjar” (dagger) by one soldier and another is about to attack it with a sword.
The left page shows a tiger dead and lying on its back with its four feet in the air while another is about to meet its end, both these are of normal colour. From the painting it appears that all the five cubs are large and almost full grown.
Since the narrative on the paintings does not mention “white” cubs, some people are not willing to accept them as white tigers, but others say the colour of the two is so unmistakably different, “light fawn”, that it cannot be ascribed to chance.
On January 22, 1939, the Prime Minister of Nepal shot a white tiger at Barda camp in Terai region. The last observed wild white tiger was shot in 1958, and the mutation is believed to be extinct in the wild. There have been rumours of white tigers in the wild in India since then, but none have been considered credible. It has been suggested from the casual way that Jim Corbett makes reference to a white tigress, which he filmed with two orange cubs, in his “Man-Eaters of Kumaon” (1946) that white tigers were nothing out of the ordinary to him. Corbett‘s black and white film footage is probably the only film in existence of a white tiger in the wild. It illustrates again that white tigers survived and reproduced in the wild.
In Rewa hunters’ diaries recorded 9 white tigers in the fifty years prior to 1960. E.P. Gee collected accounts of 35 white tigers from the wild up to 1959, with still more uncounted from Assam (India) where he had his tea plantation, although Assam with its humid jungles was considered a likelier haunt for black tigers by Gee. Some white tigers in the wild had reddish stripes known as “red tigers”. The Boga-bagh, or “white tiger”, Tea Estate in upper Assam, was named after two white tigers were shot there in the early 1900s. Arthur Locke writing in “The Tigers of Trengganu” (1954) mentions white tigers.
White tiger sightings in the wild
Historical records of white tigers on the Indian subcontinent date back to the 1500s, but the most famous white tiger was Mohan, a male captured in Rewa in Madhya Pradesh, from which numerous white tigers were bred for captivity. Despite the long history there are very few records available regarding their sightings in the wild. This indicates perhaps there must have been more sightings in the past which were never recorded. Since the occurrence of white tiger has never been a normal phenomenon it’s sighting in the wild would have been a matter more of a superstition than a reality. Perhaps that could have been the reason that no reference to the animal is found in the history which is more than three hundred years old. The first introduction of Europeans with the white tiger took place in 1820 when a specimen was exhibited at Exeter Change in London. These cats became extinct due to game-hunting and habitat loss. The last one was shot in 1958.
Richard Lydekker, a naturalist, wrote in Game Animals of India (1907) about five white tiger skins: “A white tiger was exhibited alive at Exeter Change about 1820; a second was killed in Poona about 1892; in March 1899, a white tiger was shot in Upper Assam (in Assamese language they are called “Bogabagh”—‘boga’ means white and ‘bagh’ is tiger) and the skin sent to Calcutta, where a fourth specimen was received about the same time. The Maharaja of Kuch-Behar also possesses a white tiger-skin.” An article in the Miscellaneous Notes of the Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society (dated 15 November, 1909) reported about a white tigress which was killed in the Mulin Sub-Division Forest of the Dhenkanal State in Orissa. The said report was originally published in the Indian Forester in May 1909, and was made by Bavis Singh, Forest Officer. Same journal’s “Miscellaneous Notes: No. 1 – A WHITE TIGER IN CAPTIVITY” (with photo) states, “The white tiger in captivity in Rewa was caught in December 1915 in the jungles of the State near Sohagpur.”
In his book The book of Indian Animals (1948) S.H. Prater wrote, “White or partially white tigers are not uncommon in some of the dry open jungles of central India.” It is wrong to say that white tigers did not thrive and breed in the wild. In fact they have reproduced and bred for generations in the wild. At one time it was even planned in India to reintroduce captive-bred white tigers to their natural habitats in a special reserve near Rewa (now in Madhya Pradesh). A.A. Dunbar Brander wrote in Wild animals in central India (1923), “White tigers occasionally occur. There is a regular breed of these animals in the neighborhood of Amarkantak at the junction of the Rewa state and the Mandla and Bilaspur districts.
Reporting about the white tigers of China Victor H. Cahalane wrote in 1943 “…north China has produced a number of albinos, with the inevitable faint brown stripes. Very rare melanistic (black) tigers are known.” These tigers were white individuals of the Amur tiger subspecies (Panthera tigris altaica), also known as the Siberian tiger. Besides China white tigers were also reported from Korea. These cats have cultural significance in both the countries and are also part of the folklore in Java and Sumatra.
Blue or Maltese tiger
Out of all the reported Blue or Maltese tiger sightings, most have been from South Chinese subspecies and are coloration morph of the animal. Today, South Chinese subspecies is critically endangered, and the “blue” alleles may be wholly extinct. However, “blue” tigers have also been reported from Korea, home of Siberian tigers.
These cats have bluish fur with dark grey stripes and have been sighted mostly in the Fujian Province of China. The name “Maltese” is derived from the domestic cat terminology for blue fur, and refers to the slate grey coloration. Many cats with this colour are already present in Malta, which may have given rise to the use of the adjective in this context; however, the striped cats have nothing to do with the island, they have not yet been proved to exist there.
Available records show that around 1910, an American missionary and a big game hunter, Harry R. Caldwell, spotted a blue tiger outside Fuzhou. While he saw one at close range, he first mistook it for a man in blue clothing. After realizing what he was looking at he attempted to shoot it in order to verify its existence to the world, but noticed two children nearby. Not wanting to harm the children he repositioned himself, but by that time the tiger was gone. He called the tiger “Bluebeard” and described it as having a deep maltese blue fur, instead of a tigers usual orange, with black strips.
Many unsuccessful searches for Blue Tigers were carried out by Caldwell, on which his son, John C. Caldwell, also accompanied him. On several occasions John noted seeing maltese coloured hairs along the mountain trails. To date the Blue Tiger remain one of the mystery cats of the world.
Caldwell’s search is recorded in his book Blue Tiger (1924), and by his hunting companion Roy Chapman Andrews (Associate Curator Of Mammals In The American Museum Of Natural History And Leader Of The Museum’s Asiatic Zoölogical Expedition Of 1916-1917) in his Camps & Trails in China (1925, chapter VII).
Chapman cites Caldwell thus:
“The markings of the beast are strikingly beautiful. The ground colour is of a delicate shade of Maltese, changing into light gray-blue on the underparts. The stripes are well defined and like those of the ordinary yellow tiger.”
Caldwell, Chapman (1925)
The black tiger was also long considered mythical, but the recovery of several pelts has proved that pseudo-melanistic or hypermelanic tigers do exist. In fact they are not entirely black, but have dense, wide stripes that partially obscure the orange background colour.
In support of the blue tiger theory, Maltese-coloured cats undoubtedly do exist. The most familiar are the domestic cat breed, the Russian Blue, and a variety of the British Shorthair, the British Blue. Blue bobcats and lynxes have also been recorded. There are genetic mutations and combinations, which result in bluish hue, or at least in the impression of a blue-gray animal. Shuker says that blue tigers have two different pairs of recessive alleles – the non-agouti (s/s), and the dilute (d/d) that combine to give a solid blue-gray colour as found in domestic cats such as the British Blue and Russian Blue, but would not produce the striped blue tigers.
Simply combining dilute alleles and non-agouti would almost certainly result in a “maltese” or greyish tiger, but such specimen would have hardly-visible stripes or none at all: Normal tigers swap between agouti (orange) and non-agouti (black) in different areas of their pelage. The non-agouti mutation would produce animals akin to black panthers that have only a “ghost” pattern; they have all black hair but the hairs of their rosettes retaining a different texture and thus, “black-on-black” rosettes are visible under appropriate lighting. Combined with all-dilute alleles, the colour would be grey, but it would still result in an non-striped or ghost-striped tiger.
For a Maltese-and-striped fur, pheomelanin production must probably be suppressed (to switch from an orange to a greyish colour) but agouti retained (to produce darker stripes); perhaps some hypermelanism would also be present, to produce an animal with a non-white belly as reported by Caldwell. Indeed, such a genotype is known in cheetahs, where it produces animals that are bluish gray with dark slate grey pattern. If factors such as lighting conditions are accounted for, this makes a reasonable match with Caldwell’s individual.
A variant expression of the non-inhibited pigment (“chinchilla “) allele – the allele in other contexts producing white tigers – is also sometimes deemed possible. This would produce a “haze” effect over the whole body. Combined with pheomelanin suppression, it would produce a white animal with light gray pattern; such specimens are also known in the Cheetah.
In isolated or smaller populations, genetic drift can put right unusual traits such as aberrant coloration. A non-harmful mutation can soon become prevalent in small, isolated populations. Moreover, if the mutant gene bestows benefits, such as better camouflage, then affected individuals may out-compete those without the mutation; this would take place faster in a smaller inbred population close to panmixia, means random mating within a breeding population.
Birth of a Blue Tiger
A smokey blue pseudomelanistic tiger was born in Oklahoma in the 1960s. Richard Perry, in his book “The World of the Tiger” reiterated that China’s blue tigers were called blue devils because they were so often man eaters.
More recently, there have been occasional reports of blue tigers in a mountainous region on the border between North and South Korea. Since North Korean government does not allow outsiders, it is not possible to investigate sightings. Slate-coloured tigers may represent a montane population (inhabiting mountain areas) of tigers where the colour has become fixed in a small, isolated and inbred population. Caldwell’s hunting expedition indicates that blue tigers prefer inaccessible regions where they are less likely to be encountered by humans.
Today there are no blue tigers in captivity – if there were, the recessive gene would make it easy to fix the trait. If a smokey blue tiger was born in the Woodland Park Zoo, this would be the only captive blue tiger. There are no blue tiger pelts in museums or private collections.
The South China tiger subspecies whose range covers Fujian province (near Taiwan) has not produced white tigers despite the fact that the historic ranges of the Amur and South China tigers may have overlapped resulting in inter-breeding. South China tiger is believed to be the “stem species”, from which all other subspecies evolved so it is just about possible that the chinchilla mutation occurred in the South China tiger where it causes the bluish shaded colour morph and has been inherited by its descendent species where it has combined with other genes to produce white tigers.
A black tiger is a rare colour variant and is not a distinct species or geographic subspecies. There are reports and one painting (now lost) of pure black non-striped tigers (true melanistic tigers). Most black mammals are due to the non-agouti mutation. Agouti refers to the ticking of each individual hair. In certain light, the pattern still shows up because the background colour is less dense than the colour of the markings.
So-called black tigers are due to pseudo-melanism. They have thick stripes so close together that the tawny background is hardly discernible between stripes. It is said that such tigers are becoming more common due to inbreeding. They are said to be smaller than the normal ones, perhaps also due to inbreeding or because large black leopards are misidentified as black tigers. A discussion on these animals was presented by British cryptozoologist Dr Karl Shuker in his book Mystery Cats of the World.
In 1773, an artist James Forbes, who was in the service of British East India Company in Kerala (India), painted a water colour of a black tiger shot a few months earlier by the Nairs (a Malayali Kshatriya or warrior group among Hindus of Kerala). Now the painting is not traceable, but Forbes’ description of it survives:
“I have also the opportunity of adding the portrait of an extraordinary Tyger [sic], shot a few months ago by the Nairs in this neighbourhood, and presented to the chief as a great curiosity. It was entirely black yet striped in the manner of the Royal-Tyger, with shades of a still darker hue, like the richest black, glossed with purple. My pencil is very deficient in displaying these mingled tints; nor do I know how to describe them better than by the difference you would observe in a black cloth variegated with shades of a rich velvet.”
This corresponds to ghost markings similar to those on black panthers.
A black tiger from the East Indies was displayed in the Tower of London menagerie, founded by Henry III in the 13th Century and was operational until 1831 when it was relocated to its present site in Regent’s Park, now London Zoo; it is believed that the animal would more likely to have been a black leopard. “Sophie in London” a 1786 book, has recorded Sophie’s impressions of this cat: “The all-black tiger, which Mr. Hastings brought with him from the East Indies is most handsome, but his tigery glance is horrible.” On 27th January 1844, newspaper The Observer records about a black tiger (again, probably a black leopard) intended as a present for Napoleon from the King of Java. It was displayed at Kendrick’s menagerie in Piccadilly, London.
C.T. Buckland, a naturalist, reported in March 1846 about a black tiger in the Chittagong Hills (now in Bangladesh) where it was killing cattle. Soon it was shot with a poisoned arrow and body was later discovered but it was too decomposed to skin. Buckland’s account was published in the Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society (JBNHS) during 1889; it documented the case of a black tiger killed at Chittagong. The report is not reliable because over 40 years had elapsed between the actual event and the report; all of the party members that could have corroborated his story had died.
In September 1895, a very clear sighting of a believed to be a black tiger was made by Colonel S. Capper using a hunter’s telescope; soon it disappeared into the jungle. The presence of black leopards in the area and the difficulty of truthfully judging size make this also a dubious report. A variety of accounts of black tiger sightings were detailed in “The Wildlife of India” by E.P. Gee.
In 1913, A.T. Hauxwell fired at an apparent black tiger near Bhamo, in Burma (modern Republic of the Union of Myanmar), but it escaped. He reported this in the JBNHS.
A jet-black tiger with no visible markings was apparently shot in Assam, (India) in 1915; unlike many melanistic big cats, which have shadowy patterns visible from certain angles, this individual had no manifestation of striping. A black tiger carcass was reported from south of Assam in 1928, but its skin was too decayed to be saved. Another around the same date was reported in the Central Provinces and had dark brown coat with black markings.
T. Banjie‘s report “Tigers in China” (1983) claimed several sightings in the Dongning area of China. They claimed to have occurred in 1951, 1953 and 1957 and a black tiger was allegedly captured in 1972. These animals are also part of Vietnamese legend. The reduction of tigers in those areas may have eradicated the carriers of genes for melanism and pseudo-melanism. A so called “black tiger” shot in Manipur state (India) in the early 1930s was actually an Asian black bear, but was called a black tiger to take advantage of the bounty offered for such creatures. In 1936, again a so called black tiger captured in Dibrugarh (India) turned out to be a black leopard, but a skin with chocolate brown background and black stripes was reported in the same year in the Central Provinces.
A British Indian Forest Service (BIFS) officer A.A. Dunbar Brander witnessed a tiger getting covered in blood from a fresh kill and as the blood dried it appeared black. After the incident he said, “Had I not witnessed this transformation and come on the tigers without being aware of what had happened, I would have been firmly convinced that I had seen a black tiger.”
According to S.H. Prater (writing for the JBNHS in January 1937) The London Evening News (10 October 1936), published a report from news agency Reuters about a black “Royal Bengal” tiger captured in a forest in Dibrugarh, Assam (India). The manager of a local tea estate captured the animal in a baited iron cage. The Conservator of Forests, Assam, was unable to get a clear view of the black tiger, but advised the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) that it was trapped on 4 September 1936 in the Nepaphoo Tea Estate owned by Bagchi Brothers of Dibrugarh and was sold to wild animal dealers M/S PKB Akuli of Barrackpore Road, Calcutta (India). Dr. Baini Prashad, Director of the Zoological Survey of India, Indian Museum, Calcutta made additional inquiries and found that the wild cat was in fact a black leopard and not, as reported by Reuters, a tiger. Sankhala noted that the “Dibrugarh Black Tiger” reported to be 12 feet long and 3.5 feet high turned out to be a 7 ft long leopard. R. I. Pocock wrote “A ridiculous measurement (12 ft) ever for a tiger: the animal would require another pair of legs in the middle of its body, like a billiard table, to support its weight.”
Pocock’s article in the JBNHS recorded 3 reports of black tigers: the 1846 Chittagong specimen reported by C. F. Buckland in The Field and in the JBNHS; the 1913 Bhamo, Burma specimen reported by A. T. Hauxwell and the Lushai Hills, Assam specimen. Col. S. Capper, who was shooting in the Cardamom Hills in south India, spotted through his telescope a black animal lying on a rock and identified it as a black tiger. Since the animal was not killed its identity could not be established. In addition to this Black leopards were also present in the area therefore Col. Capper’s claim looks dubious. Brigadier General Burton wrote in his book “Sport and Wildlife in the Deccan” that light and shade in the jungle can give erroneous impressions of an animal’s colour, thus casting doubt on Hauxwell’s black tiger also.
Captain Guy Dollman of the British Natural History Museum wrote in The Times, (14 October 1936) about two cases of melanism in the tiger. The first was a young creature shot in the Central Provinces some years before. It was dark brown all over with stripes looking black on the dark ground colour. The second individual was shot in 1915 by natives east of Dibrugarh, Assam. Dollman wrote, “There can be no doubt that the animals I have referred to above were tigers and not leopards”. In response to Dollman, W.H. Carter wrote in The Times of 16 October 1936
“I was much interested in Captain Guy Dollman’s letter on black tigers in The Times of October 14, having been resident in the neighbourhood mentioned by him for years. In one of the official district Gazetteers of Bengal (Khulna or Backerganj) there is mentioned a local variety of tiger which had lost its stripes as camouflage in the open sandy tracts of Sundarbans. The uniform colour scheme adopted was however, brown and not black, but perhaps his cousin in the hinterland found black more suited to his background. The author of the Gazetteer in question is, I believe, dead.”
In the early years of 1970s, Oklahoma City Zoo’s pair of tigers had three cubs that were strangely coloured. One had the normal background colour but all four limbs were unusually dark. The second cub had dark feet, though they gradually grew lighter as the animal matured and became the normal colour when it reached adulthood. The third individual had the normal background colour, but considerable darkening over the shoulders, down both front legs, over the pelvis, and encompassing both back legs. The darkening was more-or-less the same colour as the stripes. The striped pattern was only visible over the darkened areas. The most unfortunate part was that the two of the three cubs were killed by the mother, leaving only the dark-footed cub. The body of the black cub was preserved in formalin. There was likelihood that this cub would have also become lighter in colour as it matured.
In 1999 L.A.K. Singh gave an exhaustive account of the Melanistic Tiger in India. In the winter of 1975/6, two adult black tigers were spotted in bright sunlight on the road leading to Matughar meadow; Cats were seen by Orissa Forest Service officials accompanied by two foreign tourists. In 1991, a black cub was sighted with two adults and a normal colour cub at Devasthali. This sighting was dismissed as an optical illusion. During 1996, adult black tigers were observed several times. A yellow-striped black tiger was seen near Baladaghar. A black tiger was sighted near Bachhurichara, between Patabil and Devasthali. Sometime later, a yellow-striped black tiger was seen between Patabil and Devasthali.
In 1992, a hide of another evidently true melanistic tiger was seized from a hunter and smuggler at Tis Hazari, south Delhi in India. Animal’s top of the head and back were black, while its sides had shadow striping on a black background colour. The cat’s coat was displayed at the National Museum of Natural History, New Delhi, in February 1993.
In the year 1993 itself, a young boy shot a melanistic female in self-defence with a bow and arrow, near village of Podagad in west of Similipal Tiger Reserve in Orissa (India). Preliminary examination indicated that the animal’s background colour was black with white stripes on abdomen and tawny on dorsal side. According to Valmik Thapar in Tiger: The Ultimate Guide, “the only proof of black tiger is a skin with a black head and back.” K. Ullas Karanth wrote in The Way Of the Tiger that a partially black tiger was recently killed by poachers in Assam.
There were reports that one of the three white tigers that were born in Vandalur zoo in June 2010 seemed to have changed its colour — most of its body and legs are now black.
Rare Indian tigers (Black) spotted at Simlipal
Three rare Melanistic Indian tigers were spotted in the Similipal National Park in Orissa’s Mayurbhanj district. According to officials rare black tigers were seen at the state’s only tiger reserve during the ongoing tiger census through camera-trap method. The census was being done by the surveyors from Wildlife Institute of India (WII) by installing cameras in 30 different locations in the core area of the 2750 sq km national park.
“Cameras captured pictures of one female and two cubs of black colour”, said an official. The survey team had captured pictures of six tigers of which three were black. It was claimed, the black cats had light brown coat with jet black stripes.
Chief Wildlife Warden Suresh Mohanty described existence of black tigers in Similipal National Park as ‘usual’. Noted tiger expert and former chief wildlife warden of Orissa Saroj Kumar Patnaik told a news agency that the black tigers were earlier spotted way back in 1993 at Pedagarh in the park area. Apart from this, black tigers were spotted for the second time in 2004 at Debasthal in the core area. (The Hindu – June 4, 2007)