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by Tyler Nicoll

In 1973 the Endangered Species Act was passed in the United States to protect endangered species and their associated habitats. Since then, many reputable and successful programs have been implemented to accomplish species preservation. Globally, wildlife biologists and ecologists are working to slow the rate at which species are disappearing. Most zoos have captive breeding programs to protect threatened species. However, some zoos misrepresent the true reason for certain breeding programs, in particular those for the white tiger.

The white tiger persists throughout recent history due to a series of unfortunate events; white tigers do not exist in the wild. In India in the mid-1900s, an orange Bengal Tiger gave birth to a single white male tiger. Wealthy individuals captured the tiger and inbred him to his own offspring. This inbreeding continued in the U.S., and today’s white tigers are hybrid Siberian-Bengal Tigers from a very narrow inbred gene pool.

The white color gene is recessive; inbreeding to offspring increases the likelihood this gene will be expressed. The white color gene is linked with multiple other gene mutations that would cause the white color gene to die out through natural selection in the wild. Among various defects, 100% of white tigers are cross-eyed. Additionally, the white coloring is not suitable camouflage for a predator; it would be nearly impossible for the white tiger to hunt successfully in the wild.

According to Dr. Laughlin at Big Cat Rescue, Tampa Florida, “anyone involved in breeding and/or exhibiting white tigers is doing a great disservice to honest conservation and preservation efforts to save the five remaining and endangered subspecies of tigers barely clinging to survival in their rapidly diminishing natural habitats.” Current white tiger breeding programs are strictly for financial gains. Photo opportunities with white tiger cubs create a breeding ring where baby tigers are quickly discarded after a few months. This is due to a law that limits public interaction to the time period when tiger cubs weigh less than 40 pounds. A few facts further exemplify the horrifying number of tigers that are cycled through to produce a white tiger suitable for display:

  • Only 1 in 4 tiger cubs from a white tiger bred to an orange tiger carrying the white gene are born white
  • 80% of surviving white cubs die from birth defects associated with the inbreeding, such as immune deficiency, scoliosis of the spine (distorted spine), cleft palates, mental impairments and grotesquely crossed eyes that bulge from their skull
  • According to some tiger trainers, only 1 in 30 of those white cats will consistently perform

I recently visited the Saint Augustine Wild Reserve in Florida. The Reserve is a sanctuary for rescued exotic animals, mostly exotic cats. The cats would have otherwise been euthanized or lived a miserable life in conditions unfit for majestic creatures at the top of the food chain. I was mesmerized by the beauty and agility of the tigers. Despite weighing over 500 pounds, they can effortlessly leap 4 feet up and land silently on top of the wooden boxes that create a dynamic and stimulating environment.

How in 2013 is it still LEGAL to privately own TIGERS? According to the World Wildlife Fund, “Only six percent of the U.S. captive tiger population resides in zoos and other facilities accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. The rest are found in other private hands—some regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, some under state regulation, and some under virtually no regulation at all.” The U.S. alone has more captive tigers than found in the wild. Privately owned tigers are used as symbols of wealth and even security for drug dealers.

While the story of the White Tiger is grim, there are positive steps being taken to protect endangered species. The Big Cats and Public Safety Protection Act was introduced earlier in 2012, and if it passes, it will outlaw private ownership of big cats, require existing owners to register their cats, and limit breeding to only accredited institutions.

While we don’t have native Tiger populations in the United States, there is a long list of threatened and endangered species that need protecting. Great Ecology has completed a number of projects that create, enhance, and study the habitat of threatened and endangered species. Some of these projects include Peregrine Falcon MonitoringSonoran Desert Ecological Planning studying the Burrowing Owl, and the Woodbridge Brownfield Redevelopment, which is restoring habitat for the Yellow-Crowned Night Heron. Habitat restoration and species conservation are essential aspects of preserving the world’s vital natural resources.