The truth about white tigers
© Julian Herzog


High-profile TV coverage of tigers in captivity may give the impression that breeding tigers in captivity is the only way to save the species. But that’s far from true.

Globally, there are some legitimate conservation breeding programmes for tigers, and where appropriately managed they could be used to re-establish wild populations in the future. However, there are estimated to be over 8,000 tigers in captive tiger facilities across China, Laos, Thailand and Viet Nam and over 5,000 in the US, with most providing absolutely no conservation benefit whatsoever to the world’s remaining 3,900 wild tigers. Often misinformation promoted by facilities about captive and white tigers’ benefit to conservation misleads the public to further the profits brought in by these facilities. 

Leigh Henry, Director of Wildlife Policy at WWF-US, shares four reasons why the promotion of “endangered” white tigers, as just one example, is a ploy of facilities to profit from captive tigers while providing no benefit to wild tiger conservation...


1. White tigers are falsely marketed as a highly endangered species

White tigers are not a separate subspecies of tiger. The colour of their coat is the result of a genetic mutation called leucism. In fact, this white coat would be a hindrance in the wild, as it doesn’t provide a tiger with any camouflage, which greatly reduces their chance of survival.

White tigers at a captive facility.
© Eustaquio Santimano


2. White tigers in captivity exist due to inbreeding

The white tiger is a result of a genetic mutation and the most efficient way to breed them is by using two tigers who have the recessive alleles needed to produce offspring with a white coat. In captive breeding facilities these two individuals are often related, making inbreeding common.

In the US, all white tigers originate from a single male white continental tiger which was imported to the country decades ago. 


3. Inbred tigers are unhealthy tigers

Inbreeding tigers, not just white tigers, is common in captive facilities and inbred tigers suffer from a range of significant health problems. Common issues include spinal deformities, defective organs and immune deficiencies. Instead of admiring the colour of the tigers’ coats we should be asking ourselves why these tigers are here in the first place.


4. They’re often bred for cash, not conservation

Captive tiger cubs, including white tiger cubs, generate a large amount of revenue for facilities which often don't reach the field conservation projects they say they support. Small tiger cubs are relatively easy to care for, but the constant stream of new cubs needed by many facilities for photo ops or cub handling for paying customers creates a bigger problem when they reach adulthood. Adult tigers are expensive to care for and require larger and more secure enclosures. To reduce their numbers, some captive facilities kill their tigers and sell their parts to supply the illegal tiger trade, making a profit for a second time.

Captive born tiger cubs are sometimes raised with piglets in tiger breeding facilities, feeding on milk from a sow, supposedly to make the tigers more docile.
© Gordon Congdon


The reality of the situation is white tigers aren’t an endangered species but the result of a rare genetic anomaly which doesn't require conservation. And as long as captive facilities continue to supply tigers, their parts and products into the illegal trade which fuels the demand for tiger products, wild tigers will always be at risk. 

In the US, WWF is calling for more centralised oversight of the large captive tiger population to ensure they can’t supply the illegal trade. The Big Cat Public Safety Act has been introduced in both Houses of Congress and WWF is lobbying with an array of partners for its passage. In Asia, especially China, Laos, Thailand and Viet Nam where over 8,000 tigers are estimated to be in captivity, WWF is calling on governments to commit to phasing out tiger farms and instituting clear bans on trade in tigers and their parts and products, from any source, wild or captive.

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