Big cats are the five species found within the genus Panthera: lion (Panthera leo), tiger (Panthera tigris), jaguar (Panthera onca), leopard (Panthera pardus) and snow leopard (Panthera uncia). These wild feline predators are all threatened to some extent in the wild – with declining numbers worldwide. Most nature and animal lovers are aware of this and share the believe and the wish to help wild big cat populations recover.
Unfortunately, this is something that unscrupulous animal breeders and traders are also aware of and abuse for commercial purposes. Because what seems rarer and more in need of protection than a typical orange-with-black-stripe tiger or brown lion? A white tiger or lion! White tigers and lions are sometimes advertised as very endangered (sub)species with only a few individuals left, with their births in captive conditions celebrated like this is good news for conservation. Nothing could be further from the truth.
White tigers belong to the same species as normal coloured tigers, and are not part of a separate (sub)species – a not uncommon misconception. The same is the case for white lions. They are also not albinos, their white coat is simply caused by a rare and recessive mutation. This mutation exists in the wild, but as it is recessive, the individual needs to receive the mutation from both its mother and its father to express it. Therefore, white tigers and lions are rarely recorded in the wild.
In captivity however, this rare appearance has a commercial value: white tigers and lions attract more visitors and can be sold for more money. This means that breeders pro-actively cross tigers with the recessive mutation to produce white individuals. As the mutation is rare, animals that are related to each other are used for breeding. Inbreeding is a common practice used to produce animals with this rare colour, despite the negative effects for their health and welfare. As a result, captive white tigers and lions often suffer from developmental growth anomalies, from which some of the more easily recognizable ones are crossed eyes.
The same occurs for other colour varieties in tigers, such as the ‘golden’ or ‘tabby’ tiger and the ‘black’ tiger. The ‘black’ tiger is a result of thicker black stripes, minimizing the white or tawny colour on the coat. This phenomenon is called ‘pseudo-melanism’. This is different compared to melanistic forms of leopards and jaguars, often referred to as black panthers. All these black forms are not a result of different (sub)species, but only represent different colour varieties within the same species.
An even more rare and cruel form of breeding for exterior traits is the cross-breeding of different species to create hybrids. A liger is the result of a cross between a male lion and a female tiger. They grow bigger than lions or tigers. A tigon is the result of a cross between a male tiger and a female lion. Breeders also try to breed ligers and tigons with unusual colour varieties, by breeding with specific lions and tigers. These hybrids often develop health issues, and more frequently suffer from injuries, sterility and neurological disorders. They only exist in captivity as in the wild, these species would not meet and the cross-breeding is often not successful.
No conservation value
In all these cases, the selective breeding for exterior traits like these has no conservation value whatsoever, instead it reduces genetic diversity and therefore does not support the protection of the threatened big cat species. Moreover, for the general public it leads to confusion and misinformation. That is why also leading zoo associations such as EAZA and AZA reject such intentional breeding practices for their institutions.
The only result is a rare animal that will attract more attention, visitors and income
and the respective animal health and welfare issues associated with such breeding.