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Wilderness Diagnosis: What Is the White Bengal Tiger's Future?

Swati Mishra


The White Bengal tiger is close to extinction due to:

  • disease spread by such organisms as the tsetse fly
  • illegal poaching for profit and shaman medicine
  • stress from human contact while in captivity
  • inbreeding because of depleted gene pools

April 2001


White tigers in Singapore Zoo. Photo by Shuan Lo, Singapore.

A disease carried by flies killed 13 tigers in 5 days.

As the sun spread its arms over the 450-hectare Nandankanan Biological Park in Bhubneshwar, India on June 23, 2000, the appalling dance of death had already begun. Debasis, a 12-year-old heterozygous male Royal Bengal tiger was dead from Trypanosomiasis, a disease of African origin that is spread by the tsetse fly. Another tiger died on July 4, followed by three others the same night, all showing symptoms of the same disease. In the next two days, seven more tigers and a deer of a rare species died from Trypanosomiasis. The carnage ended on July 29, with a death toll of 13 tigers and one deer.

Death from disease is not the only enemy of India’s wildlife. Poaching is depleting its fragile wilderness. For example:

Poaching threatens to destroy the few remaining wild tigers.
  • In December 1999, a raid netted 3,000 kilograms of illegally poached deer antlers.
  • Another raid yielded 132 tiger claws — representing 18 dead tigers — and an astonishing 18,000 leopard claws, ripped from 1,000 leopards, with 220 blackbuck skins.
  • On October 4, 2000, a 2-year-old female tigress was killed and skinned by poachers inside the Hyderabad Zoo in India and the brother of the murdered animal, that witnessed the harrowing incident, suffered severe mental distress.
Our generation may be the last to see wild tigers.

Regretfully, with such horrific death rates, we could be the last to know wildlife in India and elsewhere. At the turn of this century, we lost many gems of fauna, including the Dodo, the Indian cheetah, and three species of tiger (Balinese, Javan and Caspian). The Red Book of endangered animals is growing thicker day by day as many animals stand at the threshold of extinction.

Tiger cub walking through bamboo. Photo: Save the Tiger Fund.

Tiger cub walking through bamboo. Photo: Save the Tiger Fund.

People in India have a cultural respect for wildlife.

Wild India

India has a rich wildlife heritage and a long tradition of nature conservation, which is practically a way of life for its people. Wildlife conservation is not merely an effort to protect some charismatic species like the tiger or rhino, but covers the whole gamut of nature conservation. Survival of wildlife and wilderness area is seen as indispensable to human survival and for maintaining the quality of life on planet Earth

India’s wildlife consists of:

1/5 of India’s mammalian species are in danger.
  • An astounding 350 species of mammals; 1,224 species of birds; 408 reptile species; 197 species of amphibians; 2,456 species of fishes; and 15,000 species of flowering plants.
  • Of that number, unfortunately, 53 mammal, 69 bird, 23 reptile, 3 amphibian, 2 fish and 22 flowering plant species are highly endangered, according to the IUCN (World Conservation Union) red list.
  • 80 of India’s fauna are in the IUCN’s “high risk” category, so wildlife conservation is a serious issue.

The White tiger in peril

Since 1900, the tiger population has decreased by nearly 97%.

A hundred years ago people wondered why anyone should be concerned about the Indian tiger. The tiger population was large, with a vast forest as its habitat. However, over the years, the general perception changed as the population fell sharply from an approximate 40,000 at the turn of the last century to 1,400 in 1972. In the last decade, the tigers have made a meager gain, numbering 3,600 individuals. The White tiger is the most endangered:

Indian wild tigers are in poor health.
  • Indian tigers are divided into two basic groups: Yellow and White of the same sub-species Panthera tigris tigris, one of the five surviving species of the wild tiger. Though it has the highest population among its counterparts, the general health condition of the species grades low. Apart from heavy poaching, much of the population has fallen victim to deleterious epidemics.
White tigers are found only in captivity.
  • White tigers are members of this depleting species of tiger, with a population of less than 133 in the world, all of which are confined to life in captivity. The Cincinnati Zoo in Ohio has the highest population, though the lineage derives completely from India.
White tigers have many birth fatalities because of inbreeding.
  • Because there are just three gene pools, all of which are native and born in India, inbreeding depressions have shown up in the White tiger, causing stillbirths, early mortality rates, reduced fertility and emergence of physical deformities in the newborns. Unfortunately, even the breeding of a tiger carrying this recessive mutation with a heterozygote individual produced a lop-sided sex ratio of male: female of 1:0.195. In my research of White tigers, the depression statistics ranged from 43.48% to 60.37%, calculated in the first decade of their breeding in four different institutions (three in India, one in the UK), as can be seen below.

The only way out of this trouble is to measure inbreeding, which would provide information for appropriate breeding programs. One way is to measure inbreeding coefficients that would determine relationships, thus helping to separate close relatives in a specific breeding program to avoid inbreeding.

Artificial zoo life creates unfit mother tigers.

However, inbreeding is not the only obstacle. There have been many reported cases of indifferent mothers who harm, kill or deform their cubs due to a variety of reasons but mostly because they experience confusing, artificial lives in zoos. The confusion stems from such factors as:

  • the cub not responding to the mother’s post birth licking
  • too many disturbances around the female during delivery
  • excessive labor pains due to large litter
  • the cub being a weakling
  • the cub returned to the mother after human contact (being hand reared)

Such cases resulted in 73.44% of the deaths among newborns at one zoo where I surveyed, mostly due to tigresses subjected to frequent and early pregnancy. The data was calculated from cases of first litters of 22 different females who had reproduced while in the zoo.

Zoos need a better tiger breeding program.

Deterring females from early breeding by allowing a breeding gap of two or three years past puberty and isolating expectant tigresses from public view have proved to be helpful. Hand rearing of cubs must be avoided as much as possible as human contact makes it difficult for the animal to adjust amongst its kin. Cross fostering should be practiced as a substitution.

A renaissance is needed

The tiger is India’s national animal.

The death toll continues. Just recently, the Trypanosomiasis epidemic in the Nandankanan zoo claimed lives of ten White and four Yellow tigers. The fatal protozoon infused by the bite of the tsetse fly was the T. brucei, an animal strain form of Trypanosomiasis, which was not pathogenic to the human population. Further enquiry of this matter is still under investigation. The tiger is India’s national animal and its loss in the Year of the Tiger would be extremely disgraceful for its citizens.

Human values cannot be imposed on the laws of nature.

Wildlife conservation is not a matter of words, but of wisdom coupled with action. Conservation efforts must be scrutinized critically, since too often mixing human values with the laws of nature can sometimes prove disastrous. A lesson can be drawn from the example of the efforts to protect the chital deer of Andaman and Nicobar Islands (a territory of India) where the resident tribesmen of the area killed the predators who tried to harm any deer. With the loss of predators to check the herbivore population, the chital deer population is now a serious threat to agriculture. The basic motto of nature conservation should be, “live and let live.”

The present scenario in India is an active wildlife protection consensus, with projects that have worked quite well. Yet there is much to be done, especially in cases of animals reared in captivity whose possible extinction has been hastened, not by physical action, but through ignorance.

Genetic engineering holds promise for the White tiger.

Though genetic engineering promises a possible solution, it will take a considerable amount of time to develop the technology. A recent genetic engineering attempt on the Asian guar almost succeeded. The animal was cloned successfully but it unfortunately succumbed to neo-natal infections. An interesting article was published in the November 2000 issue of Scientific American magazine about this topic. However, it is human nature, more than technology, which will determine the future of Earth’s wilderness.

Conclusion: Captivity is not the best way to ensure survival of tigers.

Though genetic engineering promises a possible solution, it will take a considerable amount of time to develop the technology. A recent genetic engineering attempt on the Asian guar almost succeeded. The animal was cloned successfully but it unfortunately succumbed to neo-natal infections. An interesting article was published in the November 2000 issue of Scientific American magazine about this topic. However, it is human nature, more than technology, which will determine the future of Earth’s wilderness.

Swati Mishra is a junior at Deepika English Medium School, Rourkela, India. She has studied the White tiger since 1998. She represented her state of Orissa at the 6th National Children’s Science Congress and won honorable mention at the Worldwide Young Researchers for the Environment. In 2000, Swati was awarded first prize at the national-level Intel Science fair, qualifying her for the 51st International Intel Science and Engineering fair in Detroit, USA. She plans to study biotechnology in college.

Wilderness Diagnosis: What Is the White Bengal Tiger's Future?

BioScience Article

“The Fate of Wild Tigers.”
Wild tigers are in a precarious state. Eric Dinerstein and colleagues (BioScience, June 2007) encourage leaders of tiger-range countries to support and help stage a regional tiger summit for establishing collaborative conservation efforts to ensure that tigers and their habitats are protected in perpetuity. Free to read.

Red List of Threatened Species

A searchable database of threatened species worldwide and other information.

Bengal Tigers

  • » Fact sheet on their endangered status, habitat, range, and diet, including a selection of Bengal Tiger pictures and informational links.
  • » A site with information about the physiology of tigers and threats to tigers in the wild, as well as photos, sounds and other multimedia.

BioScience article

Read the BioScience article “The Fate of Wild Tigers” to learn more about the plight of wild tigers.

Biodiversity profile of India

Discover the wildlife of India, including threatened species.

IUCN (World Conservation Union)

You can join and support this union whose aim is to fight for Earth’s animal and plant diversity.

Help protect India’s endangered species

Support the Wildlife Protection Agency of India in their fight to protect endangered species in India. The site also offers information about India’s wildlife.


There are numerous online organizations that offer an adoption program for tigers, including:

For teachers: classroom resources

General References:

  • » Roger Doyle. “Threatened mammals.”Scientific American, November 2000.
  • » “Red list of threatened species reveals global crisis.” SPAN (USIA/India), April 2000.
  • » Dr. S.K. Puri. “Biodiversity profile of India.”
  • » “Prognosing survival of the Panthera tigris tigris.” (Vol. 3 of author’s research).


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