Mutants are natural variations which occur due to spontaneous genetic changes or the expression of recessive (hidden) genes. Recessive genes show up when there is too much inbreeding. In the past, the obvious reaction to any unusual big cat was to shoot it for the trophy room. As a result, many interesting mutations may have been wiped out before the genes were passed on. Some colour mutations which would disadvantage a wild big cat are bred in captivity and are not viable in the wild. It is questionable whether these mutants should be perpetuated for the sake of curiosity or aesthetics alone.

Some of the information here is drawn from "Mystery Cats of the World" and assorted articles by Karl Shuker. I am grateful to Paul McCarthy for researching and providing extensive material, information and corrections.



Black colour is due to the non-agouti mutation. Agouti refers to the ticking of each individual hair on the background colour of a tabby cat. In certain light, the pattern still shows up because the background colour is less dense than the colour of the markings. There are unconfirmed reports of pure black non-striped tigers (true melanistic tigers).

Other so-called black tigers are due to pseudo-melanism. Pseudo-melanistic tigers have thick stripes so close together that the tawny background is barely visible inbetween. Pseudo-melanistic tigers are said to be getting more common; this may be due to inbreeding caused by habitat reduction. The observation that black tigers are smaller than normal tigers also suggests inbreeding. As humans require more space, tigers are forced into smaller areas with a smaller choice of mates; these conditions promote inbreeding and the perpetuation of anomalous patterns or colours. Several apparently melanistic tigers have also been reported. Black tigers appear to be smaller than normally coloured tigers although some calim this is because black leopards are misidentified as black tigers.

In 1772, while in the service of John Company in southwest India, artist James Forbes painted a magnificent watercolour of a black tiger shot a few months earlier by the Nairs in that region. The painting appears to have been lost, but luckily Forbes' description of it survives: "I have also the opportunity of adding the portrait of an extraordinary Tyger [sic], shot a few months ago by the Nairs in this neighbourhood, and presented to the chief as a great curiosity. It was entirely black yet striped in the manner of the Royal-Tyger, with shades of a still darker hue, like the richest black, glossed with purple. My pencil is very deficient in displaying these mingled tints; nor do I know how to describe them better than by the difference you would observe in a black cloth variegated with shades of a rich velvet." Similar tigers with faint markings have periodically been reported. These would correspond to the ghost markings seen on black leopards and black jaguars.

The Tower of London menagerie, founded in the 13th Century by Henry III and operational until 1831 (it was relocated to its present site in Regents Park, now London Zoo) once contained a black tiger from the East Indies; it was more likely to have been a black leopard. The 1786 book "Sophie in London" records Sophie's impressions of this cat: "The all-black tiger, which Mr Hastings brought with him from the East Indies is most handsome, but his tigery glance is horrible." The Observer newspaper on 27th January 1844 records a black tiger (also probably a black leopard) intended as a present for Napoleon from the King of Java. This tiger was displayed at Kendrick's menagerie in Piccadilly, London. Similarly, a black tiger pelt displayed at the Los Angeles Country Museum, USA was probably a black leopard.

The Observer, 27th January 1844, said that a black tiger, originally intended as a present from the King of Java to Napoleon, was being displayed at Kendrick's collection of exotic animals opposite St James's Church, Piccadilly. This was most likely a black leopard.

In 1846, the naturalist C T Buckland reported a black tiger in the Chittagong Hills (now in Bangladesh) where it was raiding cattle. It was shot with a poisoned arrow and its body was later discovered. Buckland wrote an account for The Field and this article printed in the Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society (Volume 4) during 1889, documented the case of a black tiger killed at Chittagong. Buckland wrote:

"No authentic record exists of a black tiger having been seen or killed in Bengal, so I am informed. Black leopards are well known, especially in the Madras Presidency and in the Straits Settlements, and I have heard of them in Bengal, though I never saw them alive there (except in the Calcutta Zoological Gardens). But before I go hence and am no more seen, I wish to state that I and several others saw a dead black tiger at Chittagong, and from the entries in my diary, which was pretty regularly kept, I know that it was in March 1846. The news was brought into the station that a dead black tiger was lying near the road that leads to Tipperah, distant about two miles from Chittagong. In the early morning we rode out to see it; but several of the party - Sir H. Ricketts, Mr. Fulwar Skipwith, Captain Swatman and Captain Hore - are no longer alive, and I cannot produce any eye-witness to attest my statement, although several friends to whom I have written recollect that they heard something about it at the time.

I remember perfectly well that the body of the animal was lying in the low bush jungle about twenty yards south of the road, and we dismounted to go and look at it. It was a full-sized tiger, and the skin was black or very dark brown, so that the stripes showed rather a darker black in the sunlight, just as the spots are visible on the skin of a black leopard. The tiger had been killed by a poisoned arrow, and had wandered away more than a mile from the place where it was wounded before it lay down to die. By the time that we arrived the carcass was swollen, the flies were buzzing about it, and decomposition had set in, so that those of our party who knew best decided that the skin could not be saved.

I was young and inexperienced, but Captain Swatman, who was in charge of the Government elephant kheddas, and Captain Hore (afterwards Lord Ruthven), of the 25th N.I, were well-known sportsmen, and had each of them killed many tigers. No doubt was expressed about the animal being a black tiger, and I have often mentioned the fact in conversation from time to time. For several weeks before we saw the dead body, the natives had reported that there was a black tiger which infested the range of hills behind the military cantonments at Chittagong. More than once, when the herdsman brought word that it had killed a cow, Captain Swatman sent an elephant and howdah for me, and we beat through the jungle in vain for it. Probably our tactics were bad, as we invariably went right up to the body of the murdered cow, and the tiger sneaked off on hearing the noise of the elephants into the extensive and impenetrable coverts.

We did not attach any importance to the native statement that the tiger was black, as we supposed that this was merely an exaggeration. So also, when a report came in through the native police that a man had been killed by a black tiger in a large village about three miles to the south of the hills behind the cantonments, we supposed that the epithet "black" was only a fanciful description of the animal. When, however, we had seen the black skin of the body of the dead tiger, we concluded that the native authorities had not been drawing on their imagination when they used the epithet "black."

I cannot venture to offer any explanation why this tiger's skin was black. It is well known that there is considerable difference of colour in the skins of ordinary tigers. Some skins have almost a light yellow ground, whilst in others the colour approaches a dark chestnut-red. Some people attribute this variety of colour to the character of the jungle in which the animals have lived, and this has a sort of probability in it; but the age of the tiger may have also something to say to it, and a beast which was of a dark red in its prime may turn to a lighter colour when it grows old.

It was my good fortune during the last forty years to see many more tigers, both wild and in captivity, than falls to the lot of most men in Bengal. I can testify that on the churs of the Ganges and Brahmapootra, when shooting during the hot winds in the end of March, through the remains of the brunt grass and charred stalks, that the animals seemed to vanish before our eyes.

Many authorities have written that the skin of a man-eating tiger is usually mangy and dull in colour. There were two man-eating tigers caught and sent to the Calcutta Zoo, whose skins were in perfect condition and of a rich colour. There was a fine tigress about five years old with a clean and well-marked skin, whose career I had to cut short, as she had taken to preying on the villagers of a place near Dacca; so that these cases were exceptions to the general rule. But I have no doubt that it is quite true that many old and mangy tigers, with decaying teeth and claws, become man-eaters. The reason is simple. A human being is the most facile prey for a tiger. One grip on the slight neck of a woman and all is over. There is no striking with pointed horns, or kicking with sharp hooves, as the tiger finds when he is killing a deer or a cow. And who shall say whether a healthy young woman is more tender and wholesome food than the flesh of a sickly old cow, half-starved in the jungle?"


This pseudo-melanistic tiger cub was born in Oklahoma zoo but was killed by the mother. It was preserved as a curiosity.

The skin was already too decayed for it to be preserved and the report is further dubious because more than 40 years had elapsed between the actual event and the report. In September 1895, a very clear sighting of a supposed black tiger in the Cardoman Hills of southern India was made by Colonel S Capper using a hunter's telescope; the tiger disappeared into the jungle. When the tiger moved from its resting place, the two experienced hunters discovered the clear pug-marks of a tiger. However, the presence of black leopards in the area and the difficulty of accurately judging size makes this a dubious report. The various accounts of black tiger sightings were detailed in "The Wildlife of India" by E.P. Gee.

In Harmsworth Natural History (1910, chief contributors R Lydekker, Sir H Johnston & Prof JR Ainsworth-Davis) p372: “As rare exceptions, both white and black tigers are met with. […] A perfectly black tiger was found dead many years ago near Chittagong, on the north-east frontier of India.”

In 1913, th son of TA Hauxwell (Conservator of Forests at Maymyo, Burma) shot at a black tiger. The animal was wounded, having been shot at a range of 15 yards by his son, in the Bhamo district, but seems to have escaped as Hauxwell could not recover a body; he reported this in the Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society. In 1914, Captain Guy Dollman of the British Museum wrote that a young black tiger had been shot in the Central Provinces of India some years previously; its coat had a dark brown background and black stripes.

Dollman also reportedd the killing of a jet-black tiger with no visible markings; this was apparently shot by villagers in Assam (to the east of Dibrugarh) India in 1915. Unlike most melanistic big cats, which have shadowy patterns visible from certain angles, this jet black individual had no appearance of striping. A dead black tiger was reported in the Lushai Hills, south of Assam in 1928, but the skin was too decayed to be saved. Another one from around the same date was reported in the Central Provinces and had dark brown coats with black markings T Banjie's report " Tigers in China " (1983) alleged several sightings of black tigers in the Dongning area of China. Sightings occurred in 1951, 1953 and 1957 and a black tiger was allegedly captured in 1972. Black tigers are also part of Vietnamese legend. The depletion of tigers in those regions may have eliminated the carriers of genes for melanism and pseudo-melanism. A "black tiger" shot in Manipur state in the early 1930s was actually a black bear, but was called a black tiger to take advantage of the bounty offered for such creatures! In 1936, a black tiger captured in Dibrugarh turned out to be a black leopard, but a skin with chocolate brown background and black stripes was reported in the same year in the Central Provinces.

Two reports of black tigers - from Chittagong and from the Lushai Hills - were based on decomposing animals whose skins could not be preserved. AA Dunbar Brander of the British Indian Forest Service wrote "I once watched three tigers feeding on a fresh kill and the largest animal which had of course selected the favourite place between the buttocks, managed to get itself smothered in blood, all the visible white being covered. As I was watching this performance, which was in broad daylight, the red of the blood changed to black as it rapidly does, and had I not witnessed this transformation and come on the tigers without being aware of what had happened, I would have been firmly convinced that I had seen a black tiger."

According to SH Prater writing for the Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society (JBNHS) in January 1937, The London Evening News, 10th October, 1936, published a Reuters account of a black "Royal Bengal" tiger captured in a forest in Dibrugarh, Assam. The manager of a local tea estate captured the tiger in a baited iron cage. The Conservator of Forests, Assam was unable to get a clear view of the black tiger, but advised the Society that it was trapped on 4th September 1936 in the Nepaphoo Tea Estate owned by Bagchi Brothers of Dibrugarh and it was sold to wild animal dealers Messrs PKB Akuli of Barrackpore Road, Calcutta. Dr Baini Prashad, Director of the Zoological Survey of India, Indian Museum, Calcutta made further enquiries and learnt that the creature was a black leopard and not, as reported by Reuters, a tiger. Sankahal noted that the "Dibrugarh Black Tiger" had been reported to be 12 ft long and 3.5 ft high turned out to be a 7 ft black leopard. RI Pocock wrote "A ridiculous measurement (12 feet) ever for a tiger: the animal would require another pair of legs in the middle of its body, like a billiard table, to support its weight." The term "bagh" does not mean "tiger", but refers to cats and is prefixed by "spotted" or "striped" etc to denote the type of bagh.

In 1937, The Field reported a chocolate brown tiger skin with black stripes in the Deputy commissioner's bungalow at Betul, Central Provinces. The Deputy commissioner said there had been a second black-on-chocolate-brown tiger sighted in the area where his pelt had come from.

Pocock's article in the JBNHS (vol xxxiii, p505) recorded 3 reports of black tigers: the 1846 Chittagong specimen reported by Mr CF Buckland in the Field (vol lxxiii, p42, p789) and in the JBNHS (vol iv, p149); the 1913 Bhamo, Burmo specimen reported by Mr AT Hauxwell (JBNHS, xxxii, p788) and the Lushai Hills, Assam specimen (Field, 1928, p 656). Col S Capper (JBNHS, vol xxiii, p343), while shooting in the Cardamom Hills, S India, saw through a telescope a black animal lying on a rock and identified it as a tiger. Black leopards were present in the area and the identification is therefore dubious. Brigadier-General Burton wrote in his book "Sport and Wildlife in the Deccan" that light and shade in the jungle can give erroneous impressions of an animal's colour, thus casting doubt on Hauxwell's black tiger also.

Prater noted that the Reuters report resulted in letters reporting further black tigers. Captain Guy Dollman of the British Natural History Museum wrote in The Time, 14th October 1936 of 2 cases of melanism in the tiger. The first was a young individual shot in the Central Provinces some years previously. It was dark brown all over with stripes appearing black on the dark ground colour. The second was an animal shot in 1915 by natives east of Dibrugarh, Assam. Dollman wrote "There can be no doubt that the animals i have referred to above were tigers and not leopards".

In response to Dollman, Mr WH Carter wrote in the Times of 16th October 1936 "I was much interested in Captain Guy Dollman's letter on black tigers in The Times of October 14th, having been resident in the neighbourhood mentioned by him for years. In one of the official district Gazetteers of Bengal (Khulna or Backerganj) there is mentioned a local variety of tiger which had lost its stripes as camouflage in the open sandy tracts of Sunderbans. The uniform colour scheme adopted was however, brown and not black, but perhaps his cousin in the hinterland found black more suited to his background. The author of the Gazetteer in question is, I believe, dead."

"...north China has produced a number of albinos, with the inevitable but faint brown stripe. Very rare melanistic (black) tigers are known." ("King Of Cats And His Court by Victor H. Cahalane, National Geographic Feb. 1943)

During the early 1970s, Oklahoma City Zoo's pair of tigers produced six litters. Three of the four cubs in the third litter were abnormally coloured. One had the normal background colour but all four limbs were abnormally dark. A second had dark feet, though these gradually grew lighter as it matured and were the normal colour when it reached adulthood. The third, and most interesting, had the normal background colour, but considerable darkening over the shoulders, down both front legs, over the pelvis, and encompassing both black legs. The darkening was more-or-less the same colour as the stripes. The striped pattern was only visible over the darkened areas. Unfortunately, three of the cubs were killed by the mother, leaving only the dark-footed cub. The black cub was preserved in formalin. Quite possibly it would have become lighter in colour as it matured, just like the feet of the surviving cub.

There was a report of a black Bengal tiger, with shadowy stripes, performing with Ringling Bros Circus during the 1970s. However this could equally have been a black leopard in a mixed "big cat" act, or a tiger treated with charcoal or dye to make the menagerie appear to have a unique attraction.

Since the 1970s, there have been sporadic sightings of black tigers in the Similipal Tiger Reserve in Odisha. During winter 1975/6, two adult black tigers were seen in bright sunlight on the road leading to Matughar meadow, south Similipal; the sighting was made by Orissa Forest Service officials accompanied by two foreign tourists, but was dismissed as a case of mistaken identity. A family of pseudo-melanistic tigers was seen in the upper Barakhamba Range in 1991, agin this was dismissed as mistyaken identity. In 1991, a black cub was seen with two adults and a normal colour cub at Devasthali, though this sighting was dismissed as an optical illusion. In 1992, the pelt of another apparently true melanistic tiger was confiscated from a hunter and smuggler at Tis Hazari, south Delhi. The top of the head and back were black, while the sides showed shadow striping on a black background colour. The pelt was exhibited at the National Museum of Natural History, New Delhi, in February 1993. In July 1993, a young boy shot a melanistic female tiger in self defence with a bow and arrow, near the village of Podagad, west of Similipal Tiger Reserve. Initial examination suggested the background colour was black with white abdominal stripes and tawny dorsal stripes. According to Valmik Thapar in "Tiger The Ultimate Guide", the only proof of black tigers is a skin with a black head and back. K Ullas Karanth wrote in "The Way Of The Tiger" that a partially black tiger was recently killed by poachers in Assam. During 1996, adult black tigers were observed several times. A yellow-striped black tiger was seen near Baladaghar. A black tiger was seen near Bachhurichara, between Patabil and Devasthali. Some time later, a yellow-striped black tiger was seen between Patabil and Devasthali.

The Hindu (Monday, June 4, 2007) reported three melanistic (more accurately pseudo-melanistic) Indian tigers seen in the 2750 sq km Similipal National Park in Orissa's Mayurbhanj district, during atiger census. The census is performed by researchers from the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun using camera-traps. One of the camera traps recorded a female and two black cubs. Black tigers had been seen in 1993 at Pedagarh in the park area and again in 2004 at Debasthal in the core area. In June 2010, three white tiger cubs were born at Vandalur zoo, one of which at first appeared dirty and then began to turn black. By August, most of its body and legs were black. The three cubs were exhibited at the Arignar Anna Zoological Park in Vandalur. The merging of the stripes on the colour-change cub appears due to a condition called abundism where markings are denser than usual due to a larger amount of melanin (black pigment). In extreme cases, abundism can be termed pseudomelanism. Whereas most tigers have predominantly orange skin (or white in the white form of tiger), the cub has predominantly black skin. “Black tigers” can also be found at the Nandankanan Zoo, Bhubaneswar.

A black tiger captured on camera in June 2012 attracted widespread media attention. In 2013, a male black cub that had been captured on camera moved to the nearby Hadgarh Wildlife Sanctuary in Keonjhar district. In 2015, a normal tigress was photographed with a pseudo-melanistic cub. In 2016, a pseudo-melanistic tigress was photographed with her three cubs, two of which were black. A 2016 camera-trap census in the Similipal Tiger Reserve in Odisha found six or seven pseudo-melanistic tigers out of a total of 29. In a litter of three to four cubs, one or two were born dark. This is not true melanism (solid black) but is due to denser-than-usual markings. The black stripes are much broader and thicker than those of normal tigers, and this obscures the tawny background colour. Behaviourally they are no different from their normal-coloured siblings. In April 2017, it was reported that normal tawny tigresses at the Reserve were increasingly producing pseudo-melanistic offspring. Pseudo-melanistic tigresses have produced tawny cubs.

If the gene producing this pattern is recessive it can be carried unseen by normal-striped tigers, so the cause of the increase would be inbreeding among gene-carriers in a diminished tiger population. If this is the case, the inbreeding is not yet severe enough that the tigers’ health has been adversely affected. If it turns out to be a dominant mutation then it is not indicative of inbreeding. The dense forests in Similipal may also favour the more darkly marked tigers because they are better camouflaged in that environment.

Historical Chinese literature also contains reports of black tigers, though it is hard to say whether these were real or mythical beasts.

Many of the reports came from experienced hunters and trackers who could distinguish between tigers and leopards both from their morphology, and from their pug-marks. However, local people used the term "tiger" in the more general sense of "big cat." It is conceivable that tigers, like domestic cats and several other felids, have a "non-agouti" gene that results in solid black specimens where the striped pattern (still genetically present) is discernible only in certain lighting conditions or in the texture of the fur. Additionally, the chocolate brown background colour reported in two cases, is consistent with sun-bleaching; background colour rusts more than the black stripes (possibly due to the way the pigment is laid down differently in the hair of each region). The selective hunting of unusual tigers, and the hunting of tigers in general, appear to have eliminated true melanism in the species.


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