White Tigers Aren't An Endangered Species -- Or A Species At All

The big cats are beautiful, but some conservation experts say we should stop breeding them.

Footage posted Monday of three white tiger cubs born in Crimea's Skazka Zoo might be adorable, but the cuteness of the little tigers belies the sad truth about breeding them.

Zoos and other exhibitors sometimes present white tigers with misleading language suggesting they are a separate species, usually in need of protection. Anecdotal evidence indicates some people are under the impression that white tigers are a variety of Siberian tiger specially adapted to a snowy environment. 

But really, white tigers are white because of a rare, recessive mutation that causes white fur. All white tigers documented in the wild by scientists have been Bengal tigers. Bengal tigers are endangered, but the white ones are not a distinct species -- they're just Bengal tigers of a different color.

However, most of the white tigers in captivity are "highly inbred" hybrids of Bengal and Siberian tigers (also known as Indian and Amur tigers, respectively), according to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, a nonprofit that accredits zoos in the United States.

Zoos are only able to continue producing white tigers via extensive inbreeding, explains the Wildcat Sanctuary, a Minnesota nonprofit refuge for unwanted captive wildcats:

In order to retain this recessive gene zoos and breeders must continually breed father to daughter and father to granddaughter and so on. This inbreeding has caused many genetic problems with tigers such as cleft palates, scoliosis of the spine, mental impairments and cross eyes.

Some of these genetic problems are so severe that cubs cannot survive. Research published in 2013 suggests that the health problems common in captive white tigers are caused specifically by inbreeding, not because of conditions inherently linked to the mutation for white fur. In other words, the very rare white tiger that might occur in the wild may not be more likely to have any health problems. 

But because of the issues linked to inbreeding, the AZA states that zoos accredited by the association should not intentionally breed white tigers. The organization does support some captive tiger breeding programs, but does not support selectively breeding the big cats with the intention of producing white tigers.

So why would a zoo breed white tigers? Mostly because people like the way they look, and they draw lots of visitors. Skazka Zoo, where the most recent litter of cubs was born, has been breeding Tigryulia, a female white tiger, since at least 2012, when she gave birth to four cubs.

"These are really very rare tigers,” Oleh Zubkov, head of the Skazka Zoo, told The Associated Press at the time. "All the zoos in Ukraine and in the world dream of having such tigers born.”

This article has been updated to clarify that Bengal tigers are endangered.

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