The Dynasty of Enchanters: White Tigers in Captivity

The first occasion to see a white tiger in Hungary presented itself in 1971, at the World Hunting Expo. These animals were relatively unknown, but definitely fascinating for zoo-going audiences all around the world: the first breeding stock of white tigers emerged in the 1950s in India as a result of wild catching and cross-breeding. Today in Hungary only visitors can see white tigers in four different zoos (Győr, Nyíregyháza, Felsőlajos, Pécs). In January 2015 two tiger cubs were born in Xantus Janos Zoo in Győr. Their birth was awaited with anticipation due to their unique white coating and mesmerizing blue eyes, unusual for Bengal or Siberian tigers. Previously such tigers were a rare sight reserved for hunters roaming the jungles of India and taxidermists inspecting them on their dissection tables, but now the family of white tigers counts over 250 specimens in animal collections. These animals are in fact really all relatives and go back to a common ancestor captured in 1951.

White tigers are extremely rare in the wild and sightings or killings typically were reported in local newspapers and specialized journals from the 19th century. These rare animals were being spotted across India in the provinces of Assam, West Bengal, Bihar, and especially traced to the princely State of Rewa. White tigers were highly prized by big game hunters and shootings occurred between 1892 and 1922  in Orissa, Assam, Bilaspur, Cooch Behar and Poona. [1] In 1909 Bavis Singh, a Forest Officer in Dhenkanal, records a shooting of a white tigress in Orissa and describes the color of the animal as follows: “The ground colour was pure white and the stripes were of a deep reddish black colour.” [2] According to The Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society, “the tigress was shot over a buffalo kill and was in good condition not showing any signs of disease.” [3] The skins of white tigers were sought for by taxidermists. In 1916 such skin has been brought to the Central Museum in Nagpur (India): “This skin with the paws cut away is piped with green flannel and mounted with the head raised and the mouth open. It measured from nose to tail 7 feet 6 inches, of which the tail only measured 2 feet 6 inches, but this has probably been shortened by the dresser as it was not intact near the root. The narrowest part across the skin measured 2 feet 8 inches. It was cream coloured throughout but paler on the head and the stripes were chocolate brown. The fur was rather long and soft in texture; its whiskers, of which only three remained were dark-brown and white.” [4] The allure of these animals was partly owed to the longtime fascination with animal albinism.

The first white tiger that left India alive was exhibited in 1809 in the Exeter Change menagerie in the Tower of London and brought as a royal gift by Sir Edward Pellew, Commander in Chief of the East Indies Station from 1805-1809. A breakthrough in keeping white tigers was achieved by the Maharaja of Rewa when in 1951 a cub was captured into the royal collection and was named Mohan, which translates into “Enchanter.” The Maharaja was determined to breed this extraordinary animal. However, the first offspring from a regular tigress inherited the orange color of the mother, not the desired pale coating. As a variation of the Bengal tiger, the white ones have a distinctive fur coloring ranging from cream to white with pale chocolate stripes and blue eyes. This unusual coating is a result of a gene mutation affecting the expression of red and yellow pigments that usually set off orange pelage in Bengal tigers. This trait is recessive, which means that it is only expressed if both parents carry the gene mutation. Because of that, the captive population is prone to inbreeding with zoos often pairing off siblings to increase the chance of producing white-furred offspring. In 1957 the first white cubs were born in captivity from the union Mohan and his daughter Radha. Already in 1961, some cubs were up for sale for $10 000 each. One of the daughters of Mohan was bought by the U.S. President, Dwight Eisenhower, and donated to the Smithsonian Institution. In the National Zoo, Mohini enchanted the audiences: “She upstaged all the other animals, sometimes without a moving muscle. Much of the time she just sat and contemplated us with regal tranquility — a heavenly tigress out of an opium dream — ermine coated, jet-striped, with sapphire eyes.” [5]

The first white tiger to be seen in Budapest was temporarily exhibited at the World Exhibition of Hunting in 1971. A five-year-old white tiger named Dalip (meaning “King” in Hindi) was rented from the New Delhi Zoo. Dalip was on a kind of “world expo tour” because a year before he was exhibited at the Expo 70 in Osaka, Japan, where the India Pavilion was visited by around half a million people each day. [6] He was supposed to arrive to Budapest with another tiger, but unfortunately, it died before.  Dalip was accompanied by his very own keeper Daya Nand, a trained vet from the Delhi Zoo. The tiger’s daily provision of six kilograms of beef was delivered by the Veszprém Zoo. [7] As part of the Hunting Expo, the alive white tiger exhibition surrounded by animal trophies was an example of “what not to hunt.” These big cats are too precious. At the time there were only 36 white tigers in captivity.


[1] White tiger in Assam: earliest authentic record of killing in India by Tikendrajit Gogoi Current Science. 2011 100(2): 147.

[2] Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society. (Eds.) W. S. Millard, R. A. Spence and N. B. Kinnear. Vol. XIX, no. 3, p. 744

[3] Ibid.

[4] The Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society. (Eds.) W. S. Millard, R. A. Spence and N. B. Kinnear. Vol. XXIV, no. 1,  p. 819

[5] Charles Cook “Enchantress” Gerogetowner, as quoted in Lisa Uddin (2015) Zoo Renewal. White Flight and the Animal Ghetto, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, p. 137.


[7] Szabad Föld, 1971.09.12, p 5.

Image credit: The animal kingdom: arranged in conformity with its organization London: Printed for G.B. Whittaker,1827-1835. v.2 [Mammalia] (1827):
Holding Institution: Smithsonian Libraries
Sponsored by: Biodiversity Heritage Library


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