White tigers have been mesmerizing humans for centuries and remain a regular crowd-pleaser at zoos and sanctuaries across the world. However, these stunning creatures are not as magical as they first appear: they are the product of a recessive gene and profit-driven inbreeding.
White tigers are Bengal tigers, the same as their orange-and-black brethren, and not a separate species that has evolved to live in the Siberian snow, as many people assume. Nor are they actually albino.
They are, however, exceptionally rare in the wild. Most captive white tigers' lineage can be traced back to a single individual called Mohan who was captured near the Indian city of Rewa in 1951, then extensively inbred for the rest of his remaining life. The reason there are so many white tigers in captivity is a direct result of intense selective breeding (and inbreeding).
Their distinctive look is caused by a genetic mutation that stops the production of red and yellow pigments, meaning that the fur grows white instead of its usual deep-orange color. The genetic mutation is recessive, so both parents need to have that gene for it to be expressed in the offspring. Since this recessive color variant is so rare, breeders often turn to intentional inbreeding of brother to sister, cousin to cousin, and so on.
This is a really, really bad idea. Like a genetic Russian roulette, inbred animals are at risk of many debilitating health problems, including heart abnormalities, cleft palates, club feet, impaired vision, and defects to skull development.
If you need some visual evidence that inbreeding is a bad idea, take a look at Kenny the white tiger. Although many people describe Kenny as having Down’s Syndrome, it is much more likely that he was the victim of severe inbreeding. He died at the age of 10, around half the lifespan of a typical captive tiger.
Millions of people worldwide were introduced to white tigers through the hairspray-soaked Las Vegas shows of magicians Siegfried and Roy in the 1990s. Fewer people were aware that the duo launched their own white tiger breeding program, even reportedly pioneered a way of selectively breeding stripe-less white tigers.
Due to the act's popularity, the white tiger continued to be a golden goose for breeders.
"Owners of white tigers say they are popular exhibit animals and increase zoo attendance and revenues as well,” said Dr Ron Tilson, renowned conservationist and tiger expert, according to ABC Australia.
However, "For private owners to say 'we're saving tigers', is a lie. They are not saving tigers; they're breeding them for profit."
Fortunately, the tide is beginning to turn. Within the past decade, the American Zoological Association imposed a ban on the breeding of white tigers, white lions, and king cheetahs by their member zoos. The public is increasingly aware of conservation issues and skeptical about keeping large animals in captivity, and it's public opinion that is the most influential.