White tigers are documented in Indian literature dating back to the 15th century. Prized for their beauty, several were taken into captivity by royalty for breeding.
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White tiger cubs are produced when the recessive gene for the color white is inherited from both parents.
The white gene can be inherited for many generations in an orange tiger and if it is bred with another tiger carrying this recessive gene, seemingly spontaneous white offspring can occur.
44 years after Mohini arrived there are now several hundred white tigers alive and well in the US today.
Bonnie Ringo, owner and operator of the Tiger Preservation Center in Oregon deliberates the future of one of her white tiger cubs. "As he lay across my lap with his silvery white coat untouched by the inhumanity in our world, I am painfully aware his future lies in the decision I am now responsible for. Where will he go when he leaves my facility? Will he inspire awe for the incredible beauty and variety of life that he represents? Will his presence remind us that it is humanity’s selfish actions that have forever removed such a wondrous image from nature?
Mohan, the start of “white tiger fever”
White tigers are documented in Indian literature dating back to the 15th century. Prized for their beauty, several were taken into captivity by royalty for breeding. But Americans are most familiar with one white tiger named Mohan. Born in 1951, he was orphaned when those who found and captured him in Rewa, India, shot his mother and three orange siblings. When Mohan grew up the Maharajah bred him to Begum, a normal orange female. They had three litters of normal colored offspring that inherited the recessive white gene from their father Mohan.
The Maharaja then bred Mohan with Radha, his daughter from Begum’s second litter. They produced a litter of four white tigers - one male Raja, and three females, Rani, Mohini and Sukeshi. It was the first time white tigers had been born in captivity.
Early breeding history of the white tiger in US Zoos
While lions have always been bred with ease, there were very few records of tiger births in captivity before 1950’s, according to the 1968 issue of the International Zoo Yearbook, and those that were born seldom lived to maturity. Difficulties in breeding success were thought to be due to the tiger’s solitary nature and the aggression the female showed towards the male after mating that discouraged further attempts to copulate. Other factors thought to interfere with breeding success were related to vitamin and mineral deficiencies in the diet of the times, which was commonly just horsemeat and milk. Tiger mothers often failed to care for young, and hand rearing was not often attempted. Feline Distemper also took its toll on cubs.
These factors explain many of the early mortalities of white tiger breeding programs. However today the tiger is a species that breeds easily in captivity, and hand rearing is usually successful. “Research has improved diet, kitten formulas and inoculations, but most importantly,” according to Rotterdam Zoo, a leader in early tiger breeding success, “it is the improvement in keeper knowledge and awareness that has been the secret to the survival of tigers in captivity.”
The National Zoo, Washington DC - In 1960 amidst much excitement, the National Zoo received one of Mohan’s daughters, a white cub named Mohini. Later, when Mohini became mature, her uncle Sampson, brother of her mother Radha was imported to be her mate. The first litter produced one white cub and two orange cubs but only the orange male Ramana, survived. The second litter produced two more orange cubs; one was stillborn, but the female named Kesari survived.
The National Zoo efforts concentrated on producing white offspring. Mohini, who was born to her father and her sister, was now mated with her orange son, Ramana. Rewati, a white female born in 1970 was the surviving cub of this litter. At that time the worldwide population of white tigers in captivity numbered just three dozen. The next litter consisted of two white and three orange cubs and a day later another stillborn was delivered. Mohini crushed three of the cubs during her strenuous labor leaving only the white female cub Moni alive.
Cincinnati Zoo, Ohio - The National Zoo loaned the Cincinnati Zoo the orange brother and sister pair Ramana and Kesari while it renovated its cat habitats. This pair was grandchildren of Mohan as well as great grandchildren of Mohan, and their father Sampson was the half-brother and uncle of their mother Mohini. In 1974 they bred while at Cincinnati producing a single litter that consisted of three white cubs and one orange cub. Ramana passed away a short time later. One white male from that litter, named Ranjit was eventually sent to the Henry Doorly Zoo, the other siblings returned to the National Zoo.
In 1976 the Cincinnati Zoo borrowed an unrelated white tiger named Tony, on loan from John Cuneo of the Hawthorne Corporation and bred him to the lone female white tiger Kesari. Tony was a white cub, born to normal orange parents from a different bloodline then Mohini. Sumita and Bhim, the white siblings from this pairing were bred to each other many times. They produced white cubs with stripes and cubs that had almost no stripes. In April 1983 a litter of 3 white cubs, including the first pure white tiger born were sold to magicians Siegfried and Roy and formed the foundation stock for their white tiger program. Many other white and white-gene tigers were born at Cincinnati and sold or traded to zoological parks in the US, West Germany, Thailand, Japan and other counties for different valuable species.
In 1989, Cincinnati Zoo received two new female white Bengal tigers. Sipra and Swapna were born in 1983 at Orissa Park in India and were pure Bengal tigers. Director Ed Maruska supported the idea of breeding white tiger genes into the Bengal population, however, the Bengal tiger was not an SSP approved animal so in the 10 years these sisters were at Cincinnati they were never bred and they passed away in the late 1990’s without contributing their genes to the US population.
Henry Doorly Zoo, Omaha, Nebraska - In 1978, Henry Doorly Zoo received Ranjit, the son of Kesari and Ramana. Dr. Lee Simmons was in charge of the tiger-breeding program. He was a leader who was influential in his field and located expertise on all levels of species management to bring them together for the betterment of conservation. This was before the creation of the first Species Survival Plan and it was this collaboration among professionals that aided Dr. Seal to develop the concept of the SSP adopted by AZA zoos today.
Dr. Lee Simmons was dedicated to improving the health of the white tiger gene pool. Henry Doorly built a stock of heterozygous tigers by pairing Rangit with normal colored tigresses, namely Mus Kative, Soma and Tanya.
The sons and daughters of Ranjit by different mothers were crossed to produce litters of both orange and white tigers. Offspring were mostly healthy and free of defects, though there were individuals that had problems. Dr. Lindsey Phillips recalls operating on a 7-day-old tiger cub to correct gastric dilation.
Heterozygous tigers Rajah and Sheba II and their daughter Obie were purchased from Baron VonUhl of Shrine Circus to enhance the gene pool of the Henry Doorly white tiger breeding program. Ranjit was bred to heterozygous Obie and produced litters of white and orange cubs.
Racine Zoological Gardens, Racine, WI – In May 1984, a white female was born to a pair of orange tigers in the Racine Zoological Garden. The father of this cub was Chiquita, the brother to Tony, the white male owned by John Cuneo, purchased from Baron VonUlh of the Shrine Circus. Jim Witchie, a private breeder in Ohio, owned Chiquita. The mother of this litter was Bonnie, who was born at the Racine Zoo. Her father Bucky came from the Indianapolis Zoo. When Bonnie was accidentally bred to her father Bucky they produced a litter of white and orange cubs in 1982, revealing that Bucky carried the recessive white fur gene and had passed it on to his daughter.
Columbus Zoo, Ohio – Ika, a three-legged white female tiger on loan from the Hawthorn Corporation was paired with a heterozygous female, Dally on lean from Cincinnati Zoo. In 1986 they produced a litter of 2 orange and one white cub.
Other white tiger bloodlines in the US
Baron VonUhl – Shrine Circus Sarasota, Florida – In addition to the progeny of the National Zoo’s Mohini and Sampson line in the US, other identifiable lines do exist. The Baron purchased an imported Bengal tigress named Susie and a Siberian-cross tiger Kubla from the Sioux Falls Zoo in South Dakota. These tigers apparently carried a recessive gene for the white coats and when the Baron bred them together white offspring unexpectedly were born. Since these cats did not have white parents, they must have inherited the white gene from grandparents or even their great-grandparents imported from India. Tony, the white male purchased by John Cuneo was one of their offspring. Other litters born to this pair were sold to the Ringling Brothers Circus. Eventually, the Henry Doorly Zoo purchased Rajah and Sheba II for their white tiger breeding program.
John Cuneo, Hawthorn Corporation, Illinois - John Cuneo of the Hawthorne Corporation traces one of his lines back to Rajah and Sheba II, two tigers owned by Baron VonUhl, of the Shrine Circus. Mr. Cuneo purchased Tony, the two-year-old white offspring of this tiger pair from Mr. VonUhl.
The Hawthorn Corporation also had another line of white gene tigers. A sibling pair of heterozygous tigers named Sheba III and Prince were purchased from the International Animal Exchange, who had imported the pair from India. This pair produced at least five litters with two of these offspring white. The heterozygous daughters Rani and Baby were bred to Tony to produce mostly white litters.
The Hawthron Corporation, which specialized in breeding and training of tigers for circus acts, was a major leader in white tiger breeding in the early decades, producing nearly 3 dozen white offspring by the mid eighties.
Jim Witchie, Ohio - Private breeder/dealer Jim owned Chiquita, the brother of Tony and used him in his white tiger breeding program selling many offspring to other private facilities.
Josip Marcan, Florida – Josip’s white tigers originated from another bloodline from Yugoslavian imports and are of pure Bengal origin. He has carefully maintained his Bengal purity and his breeding program produces the snow-white tiger and golden tabby tiger as well as the classic white tiger with the magnificent black stripes. Marcan, a doctor of veterinary medicine, recognizes the dangers of overpopulation and limits his breeding program to insure that his offspring have a secure future.
White Tiger Genetics
White tiger cubs are produced when the recessive gene for the color white is inherited from both parents. There are orange tigers that have inherited a white gene from one parent, but an orange gene from the other parent. Such cats have one of each gene to potentially contribute to its offspring and are known as heterozygous. It is a roll of the dice which gene is inherited. If an orange tiger that carries the white gene is mated to a white tiger – there is a 50% chance of white offspring, since the white tiger has only has white genes to contribute and the orange has two possible colors to contribute. If two such heterozygous tigers are mated, there is a 1 in 4 chance the offspring will be white. A white tiger only has white genes for its offspring to inherit; therefore two white tigers mated together produce only white cubs.
As this article shows, the white gene can be inherited for many generations in an orange tiger and if it is bred with another tiger carrying this recessive gene, seemingly spontaneous white offspring can occur. Most likely this happens when offspring are bred to parent, such as the cases of Bonnie and Bucky, or siblings are bred such as Sheba II and Prince, because that greatly increases the random chance that two cats being bred are carrying the white gene. The spontaneous occurrence of white tigers in the US shows that apparently several orange Bengal tigers imported from India were surprise carriers of the recessive white gene.
Sadly, the AZA Zoo’s Felid TAG recommended phasing out the Bengal tigers in US collections and Species Survival Plans were developed for only three out of five existing tiger sub-species. This change of interest meant that the work of the previous decade performed by Henry Doorly Zoo to improve the genetics of the white tiger bloodline was abandoned. As the AZA zoo world turned its attentions to other sub-species, some of the white and heterozygous orange tigers were sold and traded to private zoos such as Tanganyika, owned by Jim Fouts, and dealers such as International Animal Exchange operated by the Hunts where they became founders of the private sector white tiger gene pools.
44 years after Mohini arrived there are now several hundred white tigers alive and well in the US today. That translates into approximately 9 generations since Mohini. If all private owners had continued to inbreed their tigers as intensively as was done in the early history of Mohan and Mohini, this would be impossible. Inbreeding decreases survivability by compromising immune systems and increasing genetic defects. Inbreeding continued on the level described in this early history would eventually result in extinction due to total loss of offspring survivability.
Instead, the opposite occurred. Through countless out-crossings the white gene is no longer rare in the privately owned captive tiger population. Josip Marcan guessed the white tiger population in the US ranges from 250 to 300. Other estimates bring it closer to 400. For every white tiger there are several orange that carry the white gene so one could be looking at 1000 tigers with this white gene. This seems to be a reasonable estimate considering that in a privately kept white tiger studbook, 233 tigers were documented born white or heterozygous in the first 3 decades since Mohini.
It is true that some breeders operate with limited resources and understanding of the importance of genetic diversity, inbreeding parent to offspring or brother to sister producing cubs with hip dysplasia, cleft palates and crossed eyes. However, many facilities produce this color variation by introducing unrelated genetics to known white gene carriers to increase the genetic diversity and strengthen the health of their bloodlines.
A big boost to the diversity of the white tiger genetics happened after the US F&W S Generic Tiger Ruling in 1998 eliminated the CBW permit requirement, allowing breeders to purchase new bloodlines in interstate commerce without restriction - and they did. Unfortunately the boom in breeding tigers for color produced an abundance of tigers that exceed the carrying capacity of the available captive habitat. This overpopulation has caused instability and is the driving force behind many of state and county ban laws passed in recent years, as well as the Congressional passage of the Captive Wildlife Safety Act amendment to the Lacey Act.
Two views of Conservation
Conservation is a word with many meanings. The US Department of Interior is charged with conserving our natural resources and defines this word to mean using habitats, resources, animals, and plants wisely so as to save them for future generations.
The present interpretation of conservation held by AZA zoos is that species held in captivity should be managed with possible re-introduction in mind. This requires animals in a breeding program be the same sub-species as those found in the wild that they might someday be released into. This dictate has caused species managers to turn against the “generic” white tiger, even though the possibility of actually reintroducing such a large and dangerous predator as a tiger into native habitat is remote at best.
Just look at the facts, notes Josip Marcan, “In 1960 there were 3 billion people on this planet. In 2000 the world population had doubled to 6 billion. In the next 40 years experts predict 12 to 15 billion humans will be competing for space on a planet that isn’t getting any bigger. Tigers are going to be gone. They are nearly gone now, found only in a few protected reserves. There is no sense in tiger reintroduction unless we are going to reduce human population. China has a one child per family policy, India does not, and India will surpass China in population shortly. The tiger’s future is dependent upon captivity.”
Could the white tiger survive in the wild? Outspoken and opinionated critics like Ron Tilson of the AZA’s Tiger SSP say the coloration is just an aberrant mutation, a freak of nature destined to die out. This ignores that fact that most animals do not see in color, and the white color of a tiger might not be any disadvantage when hunting prey. And as this article documents there are several wild tigers captured in India that must have carried the white gene.
One thing is for sure, we humans see our world in full color and white attracts our attention, our admiration, and our desire – the desire to possess, especially anything rare. Some seek to possess of the living being, others want the trophy body. Either way, over time the white tiger was selectively removed from nature whenever man observed it.
The white tiger lives in a captive habitat controlled by humans. Someday, captivity may be the only environment where any tigers live. Humans are the major selection factor that determines what genes get passed on to the next generation. In the private sector the genes that please humanity are the ones chosen by breeders and collectors to survive – personalities that are reliable and stable and colors that delight the senses are selectively allowed to reproduce and flourish.
The AZA zoo community concentrates on maintaining three sub-species pure tiger populations, importing new pedigreed-to-the-wild breeding stock to build up their tiny gene pools. The entire population of Indo-Chinese tigers in the SSP had only 4 founders until more wild tigers were imported last year. The Sumatran tiger plan has just 14 founders. Zoos continue to seek out new wild blood in the hopes of building a captive population for future reintroduction onto the wild. Great sums of money are spent each year for a plan that deliberately ignores the conservation value of the already existing generic tiger population. These tigers exist in captivity in great abundance and could be exhibited by zoos to educate the public about the ecological role and conservation needs of the species so that wild specimens or captive purebred subspecies are not needed.
Ironically this AZA approach to tiger sub-species purity management might someday be universally accepted as unnecessary if the findings published in a paper titled Tiger (Panthera tigris) molecular diversity and conservation genetics: Progress towards a better understanding of the evolution of Asian cats submitted by Warren E Johnson to the AZA Felid TAG receives further scientific corroboration. In this paper, Johnson writes “Relatively low genetic variation was found among all tiger subspecies, particularly with mtDNA and DRB markers, where tigers had tenfold less overall variation compared with other Felidae species. Genetic homogenization of the entire species was followed by rapid dispersal throughout its current distribution. Since 20,000 to 25,000 years ago, genetic drift and reduced gene flow has led to a small amount of genetic differentiation among some tiger populations. Although, recognizable, these differences are relatively slight, suggesting perhaps that there has been insufficient time for subspecies-level genetic adaptation to be established and that tiger populations and subspecies do not necessarily have to be managed in isolation.”
Our Spiritual Reserves
Bonnie believes that the experience of viewing the amazing beauty of a white tiger gives us all a wake-up call on the depletion of our diversity. She is outraged at the critics that would have the white tiger banished from captivity. “In spite of their early inbreeding history, private breeding programs have brought us new color variations; the rare snow white tiger that lacks any striping, and the beautiful tabby tiger with its dark orange stripes against an orange and white back round. These new color variations exist today and many are perfect specimens showing no genetic defects. These amazing cats delight audiences at educational shows and magic acts, theme parks and private zoological facilities. Emphasis on producing the white tiger in private facilities has mixed this white gene with much of the country’s orange population, preserving this phenotype so that future generations can enjoy them.”
Bonnie reminds us that extinction is forever. “I don't want to think of a future where our white tiger is viewed only in a picture book. AZA has chosen to implement a policy of extinction of this gene pool in their collections. It is up to those of us in the private sector to carefully breed our white tigers for genetic diversity to help insure that our children, and our children’s children have the opportunity to see one of the greatest wonders of nature - the white color variation of the Bengal tiger. This is conservation of one of the planet’s most spectacular inhabitants. Yes, it is true that this cub that lay upon my lap, and his progeny will probably never grace the wild’s of India, but his presence in our human society brings joy and wonder and a profound appreciation for the beauty of nature and the variety of life that will translate into an ethic that values wildness and wild places as biological and spiritual reserves that must be protected and preserved forever.”
Special thanks to the following people for providing information for this article: A.K. Roychoudhury, G.C. Banerjee, R. Poddar, Abhay Kunj, Gene Schmitt, Lindsey Phillips, DMV, Bonnie Ringo, Josip Marcan, Baghavan Antel, and Pat Callahan, Warren E. Johnson.
Many thanks to Lynn Culver of NOAH Feline Conservation Center, for allowing the use of this article on ExoticCatz.com.com in cooperation with the Feline Conservation Federation. This article is copyrighted 2004 by Lynn Culver, and originally appeared in the FCF Newsletter. All rights are reserved. FCF members receive a bi-monthly newsletter containing a wealth of articles like this one, and I highly recommend becoming an FCF member to learn more about exotic felines.