what’s in a color

by Robert Johnson

There is debate in the conservation world about the importance of color variety among tigers. Tigers have historically existed over a very vast territory. The tiger as a species has existed as far north as Russia, as far south as the island of Bali and as far west as the Caspian Sea. As a result, tigers developed physiological differences to fit into their varying environments. Some tigers became larger (the Amur tiger reaches over seven hundred pounds) and some became smaller (the Balinese tiger, before its extinction, was only about two hundred pounds).

Perhaps the most visually striking differences occurred as tiger coats became different colors. In 1773, artist James Forbes painted a watercolor of a melanistic black tiger killed near Kerala, India. The most recent verified sighting of a black tiger in the wild occurred in 1993, when a young boy shot a female tiger with a bow and arrow just west of the Similipal Tiger Reserve, near the village of Podagad, India. There have been reports of tigers colored chocolate and grey and even marbled. Today, the four remaining color varieties are standard (orange and black), royal white (white with black stripes), golden tabby (red to pale orange cream stripes and saddle), and snow (all white or with ghost stripes). All these varieties of the tiger once naturally occurred in the wild.

The fate of the tiger has been shaped by the expansion of human populations and the refinement and widespread distribution of firearms. Today, less than one percent of the original tiger population exists. In losing the vast majority, we have also lost most of their biological variety. That, in brief, forms the current debate over the importance of maintaining color diversity among tigers, in particular the whites. Founded in 1924, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums—the nation’s largest and most well-known zoological organization—maintains that white tigers are mutts and are not worthy of preservation. It is important to note that this is not an institutionwide policy. Many of the AZA’s biggest-member zoos display white tigers and benefit from the revenue white tigers generate as a main attraction.

This is not a small consideration. Supporters of these rare varieties remind detractors that, not only do these tigers offer a great genetic resource in the midst of a dwindling global tiger population, displaying them generates funds that make conservation efforts possible. Whether we talk about preserving Sumatran tigers or tiger beetles, we need to get people’s attention, and few animals achieve that more effectively or with greater grace and beauty than tigers, particularly the more unique color varieties.