Moos’ Blog

Bio­di­ver­sity Counts!
Obser­va­tions and opin­ions con­cern­ing zoos, evo­lu­tion, nature con­ser­va­tion and the way we treat/​support the ecosys­tems which are sup­posed to serve us.


Hav­ing white tigers on dis­play in zoos – an appalling logic?

pub­lished 30 Novem­ber 2014 | mod­i­fied 18 Decem­ber 2016

Zoos’ mis­sion

The mis­sion of mod­ern zoo­log­i­cal gar­dens (zoos) is, or should be, focussed on main­tain­ing global bio­di­ver­sity — pre­vent extinc­tion of endan­gered species — using var­i­ous instru­ments. Con­ser­va­tion of wild fauna and flora is one of them. This is done via ex situ con­ser­va­tion efforts with their ani­mal col­lec­tions and endan­gered species breed­ing pro­grammes, and ulti­mately return­ing cap­tive bred indi­vid­u­als into the wild. Addi­tion­ally, in situ con­ser­va­tion is being applied by financ­ing and exe­cut­ing con­ser­va­tion efforts in the field to pro­tect fur­ther dete­ri­o­ra­tion of habi­tats and pop­u­la­tions. To sup­port both these types of con­ser­va­tion fun­da­men­tal and applied research is nec­es­sary. All this requires vast amounts of money.

Where does the money come from?

The source of the money can be gov­ern­men­tal and munic­i­pal sub­si­dies, spon­sors and entry fees. For many zoos the pay­ing vis­i­tors are the most impor­tant source of money for their con­ser­va­tion work. There­fore, it is impor­tant for zoos to attract as many vis­i­tors as pos­si­ble, and have them return­ing for another visit.

Edu­ca­tion about nature, endan­gered species, their habi­tats and the pre­car­i­ous sit­u­a­tion thereof, which is another mis­sion of good zoos, is not enough to main­tain a con­stant flow of rev­enues by pay­ing vis­i­tors. Peo­ple need to be enter­tained with other attrac­tions to keep them sat­is­fied. New­born ani­mals ani­mals attract peo­ple, so, many zoos — if not all — adver­tise their new­borns widely. More­over, peo­ple have always been attracted to any­thing dan­ger­ous and/​or out of the ordi­nary — espe­cially when this includes abnor­mal­i­ties, defects and anomalies.

white tigerSo, the crit­i­cally endan­gered tiger is many people’s favourite in the ani­mal col­lec­tion of zoo­log­i­cal insti­tu­tions. And when this tiger is more spe­cial or rare, it becomes even more inter­est­ing. So, a white tiger attracts more vis­i­tors, and a white tiger cub even more. Espe­cially when it is adver­tised as a spe­cial and rare species. But to be absolutely clear about this, the white tiger can­not be regarded as rare because it is not a species, not even a sub­species. It is a rare trait, fos­tered by humans, that’s what it is!

White tigers

White tiger deformedWhite Ben­gal tigers are genet­i­cally aber­rant due to a muta­tion in a spe­cific gene that causes the elim­i­na­tion of pheome­lanin expres­sion, which means these tigers are not albi­nos but are leucis­tic. This is a reces­sive trait, mean­ing that it is only seen in indi­vid­u­als that are homozy­gous for this muta­tion. Inbreed­ing pro­motes reces­sive traits and has been used as a strat­egy to pro­duce white tigers in cap­tiv­ity. Or in other words, the white tiger is a mutant, a freak of nature, an aber­ra­tion of the Ben­gal Tiger (Pan­thera tigris tigris) that has been delib­er­ately ‘man­u­fac­tured’ by man. They do occur in the wild, but only rarely.

A Ben­gal tiger with a colour aber­ra­tion in its coat (white) is not well equipped for hunt­ing in nature, because it lacks cam­ou­flage. There­fore it is merely impos­si­ble to sus­tain in the wild. Almost all white tigers are descen­dants from a lin­eage of the white tiger found in the jun­gle of Cen­tral India by the Maharadja of Rewa in 1951. As said above it requires severe inbreed­ing to pro­duce and sus­tain the muta­tion of a white coat in tigers.

Severe inbreed­ing also causes a num­ber of other defects in these big cats, such as cross-​eyed, club feet, cleft palates, spinal defor­mi­ties and defec­tive organs. There­fore, in June 2011 the board of direc­tors for the Asso­ci­a­tion of Zoos & Aquar­i­ums (AZA) approved a White Paper on breed­ing of white tigers, white lions or king chee­tahs by their mem­ber zoos. The paper stated, “Breed­ing prac­tices that increase the phys­i­cal expres­sion of sin­gle rare alle­les (i.e., rare genetic traits) through inten­tional inbreed­ing, for exam­ple inten­tional breed­ing to achieve rare colour-​morphs such as white tigers, deer, and alli­ga­tors, has been clearly linked with var­i­ous abnor­mal, debil­i­tat­ing, and, at times, lethal, exter­nal and inter­nal con­di­tions and char­ac­ter­is­tics.” AZA-​accredited insti­tu­tions are advised not to engage in inten­tional inbreed­ing prac­tices for the pur­pose of pro­duc­ing anom­alous phe­no­types from the per­spec­tives of wel­fare, edu­ca­tion, pop­u­la­tion man­age­ment, and conservation.

(Source: Big Cat Res­cue YouTube chan­nel)

Dys­func­tional zoos

Zoos that do not invest in con­ser­va­tion efforts and only are inter­ested in increas­ing their entrance fees, com­mer­cially exploit ani­mals with the above men­tioned spe­cial traits to attract vis­i­tors. These zoos do not con­tribute to nature con­ser­va­tion and can be regarded as pdfdys­func­tional zoos. But what about respected zoos that are mem­ber of a regional asso­ci­a­tion of zoo­log­i­cal insti­tu­tions? What if they have white tigers on dis­play? What if such a zoo needs the addi­tional rev­enues, from vis­i­tors that come to see the white tigers, to be able to meet the require­ments of a mod­ern zoo’s mis­sion? Should it be regarded as dysfunctional?

Con­sid­er­ing that white tigers are not a species, but merely a Ben­gal tiger with a muta­tion that impairs their health and sur­vival capa­bil­i­ties in the wild, white tigers have no con­ser­va­tion value what­so­ever. So, yes, I would con­sider every zoo that engage in breed­ing of white tigers to be dys­func­tional. Even, when the zoo itself does not breed them, but only pro­vides a shel­ter to live out their lives, it sus­tains the dys­func­tional breed­ing of white tiger. No mat­ter if the zoo tries to use the pres­ence of white tigers in the zoo to edu­cate vis­i­tors about the white tiger’s abnor­mal­i­ties, the mes­sage will still be confusing.

For instance, the mes­sage on white tigers by the Parc des Félins at Nesles, France, is rather con­fus­ing.

On their web­site the fol­low­ing state­ment can be found:
“This tiger with its ‘abnor­mal’ coat is always a great suc­cess with the vis­i­tors and yet a lot of non­sense has been said about it! Even if you like this tiger, do spend some time with the other ani­mals which are gen­uinely endan­gered because there is no real inter­est in pro­tect­ing white tigers as they don’t exist in the wild: Man has sim­ply been main­tain­ing a genetic anom­aly for the last 60 years!”

While the infor­ma­tion panel at the enclo­sure reads:
“.…these ani­mals are raised within our park only for the plea­sure of eyes.”

So, what do they want to achieve with hav­ing white tigers in their park?

(Source: Wikipedia; web­site Le Parc des Félins; infor­ma­tion panel Le Parc des Félins; web­site Big Cat Res­cue; web­site Asso­ci­a­tion of Zoos & Aquar­i­ums; Zoo Out­reach Organization)

Related blogs

Goal: 7000 tigers in the wild

Tiger range countries map

Tiger map” (CC BY 2.5) by Sander­son et al., 2006.

about zoos and their mis­sion regard­ing breed­ing endan­gered species, nature con­ser­va­tion, bio­di­ver­sity and edu­ca­tion, which of course relates to the evo­lu­tion of species.
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