MUTANT BIG CATS - BLACK TIGERS
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.
Historical quotations are credited and are in the public domain. Original text is licensed under the GFDL. 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 the “Erya,” an ancient Chinese encyclopaedia written c. 300 BC, there is a mention of a black tiger in the chapter ‘Explaining the beasts’: “The shu is a black tiger. Guo Pu notes: In the fourth year of Emperor Huai of Jin [310 BC], one was obtained in the border regions between Jianping and Zigui counties. It resembled a small tiger, but it was black; its fur was dark and luxuriant, but bore stripes/spots.” The Chinese character used could mean either, but the rest of the description suggests a tiger because a very obscure character meaning ‘black tiger’ (shu) was used, rather than the two characters for ‘black’ and ‘tiger.’ The Kangxi dictionary contained another character – one long-forgotten – that meant ‘black tiger.’” The existence of two characters that meant ‘black tiger’ suggests that such animals were real, rather than mythological.
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." In 1965, the entire Forbes collection was auctioned off and there is no record of where the black tiger painting went. Similar tigers with faint markings have periodically been reported (similar to the ghost markings seen on black leopards and black jaguars), but a close study of newspaper articles shows that most, or all, were black jaguars or black leopards.
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.
According to "The Book Of The Tiger" by Brigadier General R. G. Burton (1933) It is recorded in the Observer of 27th January, 1811, that “ a large black Tiger, intended as a present from the King of Java to Bonaparte, taken in the Gude Vrow’ on the passage to France, is now to be seen in Kendrick’s collection of rare foreign beasts and birds, at Number 40, opposite St. James’s Church, Piccadilly.” This was probably a black panther, the word Tiger being often used indiscriminately for both animals even in India, and for the panther in South Africa and the jaguar in Brazil. Black panthers are not uncommon in Java. 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.
There are a surprising number of references to “black tigers” in the early 1800s, but following the trail leads to the conclusion (a very obvious one by modern standards) that these were black leopards or black jaguars and in some cases they produced jaguar-leopard hybrids. Some of the “Black Tigers” purportedly came from India, while others came from South America. The term “tiger” was not applied solely to the striped animal, but any fierce big cat that was not a lion nor a spotted leopard! On 10th March 1847, the Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser reports: The Java Tigers. [. . .] Dr. Selberg's spirited account of a tiger-hunt, which occurred during his stay at Surabaya. Tigers of various species abound in Java. The commonest are the royal tiger and the leopard, of which latter animal the black tiger is a bastard variety. Cubs of both kinds are frequently found in the same lair; and when the black tiger is very young leopard-like spots are discernible on its skin. As it grows older they disappear, and the hair becomes of a uniform black. Bearing this in mind, here are some of the accounts of black tigers, mostly from travelling menageries.
The London Courier and Evening Gazette of 19th April 1817 reported that a fine black tiger, deemed a great curiosity, had arrived in the ‘Java’ (ship’s name) from Bengal as a present to the Regent. The Manchester Mercury of 10th June 1817 reports that Mr. Raymond had purchased a most beautiful black tiger for seven hundred guineas, currently en-route from the East-indies. This animal seems to have triggered “black tiger mania,” because Shore’s “Royal Menagerie,” Wombwell’s “Royal Menagerie” and Drake’s “Royal Menagerie” very quickly announced they had black tigers on display. From then on, as long as it was a big, black, fierce cat it was described as a black tiger.
On 30th July 1818, the Worcester Journal informed its readers that the Royal Black Tiger would be returning and would be exhibited during the Race Week. On 6th August it carried advertisement ”THE REAL BLACK TIGER, (the only one ever seen in this kingdom,) was brought in the Java Indiaman, Captain Hodges; this remarkable species of the feline breed was taken in the mountains of Thibet, and during the Nepaul War was brought to Bengal ; it is of a colour never before seen, (being Black,) and when placed in a powerful light, of fine jet are perceptible on the skin of this singular animal; the hair uniformly glossy, and looks like velvet. It may be said partake the Leopard Species, of which Naturalists have not yet discovered Nomenclature.” And on the 13th August, the paper stated that the animal (part of a travelling show) was being exhibited on Pitchcroft. Their edition of 29th August 1818 states it is part of Mr. T. Shore’s Royal Menagerie. And in September 1818, adverts in the Bristol Mirror and elsewhere claimed “The ROYAL BLACK TIGER, which now exhibiting in the Fair, we understand, has already been honoured with the inspection of some of the most Personage*, and respectable Inhabitants, of this city. all companies, and amongst every description persons, the first question is have you seen that most singular animal, the wonderful Black Tiger does complete justice all that can lie in praise it. Those who have not seen this astonishing production of nature's choicer works, will well embrace the opportunity that now presents itself, another of the kind may never again occur.”
On 30th March 1820, the Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette mentioned “Drake’s Royal Menagerie” which was exhibiting the “only black tiger, and the only white lion” in the George Inn Yard, Walcot-street.
In the Exeter Flying Post of 3rd April 1823, we can read The leopardess belonging to Mr. Shore’s menagerie which, a short time since, was exhibited in this city, whelped two cubs at Lostwithiel, on Friday last, and two more the following da, at Liskeard. The peculiar novelty attending this circumstance is that the cubs are the offspring of a black tiger and a leopardess.” The cubs were fostered on a spaniel bitch, which was normal practice. This means that the black tiger was most likely a large black leopard. This was not the first such litter; a similar event was reported in the Liverpool Mercury on 7th December 1821 – two cubs had been born to a leopardess and a black tiger in the travelling collection belonging to Thomas Shore. It wouldn’t be the last such announcement from Mr. Shore’s menagerie. The Salisbury and Winchester Journal of 25th August 1823 reported the birth of 3 cubs to a leopardess from Senegal, the father being “a fine and curious black tiger from the mountains of Thibet.” In all these cases, the cubs were fostered by a bitch. The imprecise names used by menageries owners is further illustrated in the Bristol Mercury, 4th August 1823, where Wombwell advertised a “Silver Lion and Silver Lioness” from South America.
In “The Captivity, Sufferings, and Escape of James Scurry, Who Was Detained a Prisoner During Ten Years, in the Dominions of Hyder Ali and Tippoo Saib”, by J. Scurry, 1824, pp. 109-110, there is a more persuasive mention of a black tiger. It is listed as being distinct from panthers and leopards. ‘Tipoo, thinking his mode of punishment towards those poor creatures who happened to fall under his displeasure not severe or terrific enough, ordered nine large tiger cages to be made, and placed opposite his kerconah, or treasury. They were arranged there according to his order, and soon tenanted, each with a large tiger. After the death of Colonel Bailey, we were paraded before these ferocious animals, and had an opportunity of seeing them fed once or twice a day; one of the nine was as black as a coal, the only one I ever saw of that colour. They were all taken in the Curakee jungles, which abound with elephants, tigers, wild boars, panthers, tiger-cats, leopards, &c.”
The Morning Advertiser of 15th September 1827 reports the arrival of a remarkable and singularly handsome Black Tiger on the Hon. Company’s (East India Company) ship “Thames.”
Wombwell’s Royal Menagerie advert in the Chester Chronicle of 20 February 1829 (and in other publications) rather puzzling states “The Ounce, or Black Tiger – the Black or Hunting Leopard. The American Non-descripta (no name having been yet discovered for them). This is quite a confusion of big cats – the Ounce generally meant the Snow Leopard (or occasionally the Onca – Puma), while the Hunting Leopard was the name used for the Cheetah! The Morning Advertiser of 3rd September 1829 reports on the animals exhibited in Wombwell’s Menagerie at Bartholomew Fair; these included both a black tiger and a “great black leopard from Tunis.” The black tiger was evidently not a black leopard, and was most likely a black jaguar.
The Waterford Mail of 30 July 1834 states that on 2 occasions Wombwell’s “black tigress” devoured her cubs, something that was resolved by removing the male from the den. When the “cognoscenti of the the zoological gardens” in London were asked whether the black tiger and tigress were a distinct species or “merely a variety” he opined that it was just a difference in colour. The latest birth apparently seemed to confirm that because one cub was jet black while the other was very distinctly spotted. Once again he must have black jaguars.
The Cork Constitution of 5th August 1834 sheds more light on the matter: Birth Extraordinary—Mr. Wombwell's Menagerie,— Those who have visited this splendid collection of animals, during its recent stay in this city, cannot but have noticed interesting spectacle, there presented, of the black African tigress nursing her cubs before the gaze of civilized man.— The sire, it would he observed, was not with his young, but was in the den of leopardess. The contrast between the richly variegated skin of the latter, and the deep glossy black of her strange mate, was remarkably fine. Nor was the contrast between their countenances less striking: the tiger's seemed to contain all the ferocity and malignity of his race concentrated in one face, while the features of the leopardess as she fawned about her companion, were full of gentleness. With, this however, we have nought to do at present, farther than to state that the leopardess cubbed three fine animals on Sabbath morning, two of which are of the hue of their sire (the black tiger), and the other spotted like the dam. Then, in the Inverness Courier, 19th October 1836, we read of a pair of “Tiger-Leopards” sired by a black Tiger from the interior of South America on a Leopardess from Ashantee. They had been bred in the Menagerie at Glasgow in 1834. One was spotted like the mother and the other like the sire “but his spots etc are seen more distinctly.” These are Wombwell’s animals and it shows that the so-called black tiger was a black jaguar. Black jaguars have a dominant melanism gene and this particular male obviously carried the recessive normal-colour gene.
This advert from the Carlisle Journal, 18th September 1841 mentions the “Black Tiger from the Brazils” which immediately tells us it is a black jaguar, this having a similar size and stature to the tiger.
In the Evening Mail of Friday 5th June, 1846, is part of a report (dated 29th March) from the French squadron in the China Seas. Rear-Admiral Cecille had procured a black tiger with white stripes at the peninsula of Malacca, and it was destined for the Royal Menagerie of Paris. This suggests a white tiger with pseudomelanism.
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. Ihe account was also reproduced in "Sport And Wild Life In The Deccan, An account of big-game hunting during over thirty years of service in India, with much interesting information of the habits of wild animals of that country” (1928) and "The Book Of The Tiger" (1933), both by Brigadier General R. G. Burton. 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?"
Although described as a black tiger, I believe the animal described here is a black leopard. “Circus Life and Circus Celebrities” by Thomas Frost, 1881: ”John Powell appeared during this season at Astley’s, and an additional attraction was provided in Van Amburgh’s trained animals, to which there was now added a black tiger, a rare variety, and one which had never been exhibited in a state of docility before. It was introduced in the drama of the Wandering Jew, a story which was then creating a great sensation all over Europe; and Van Amburgh personated the beast-tamer, Morok, through whose instrumentality the Jesuits endeavour to delay the old soldier, Dagobert, on his journey to Paris, by exposing his horse to the fangs of a ferocious black panther.”
There is an account of the different varieties of Indian tiger, with a passing mention of melanoid tigers, in “Highlands Of Central India - Notes On Their Forests And Wild Tribes, Natural History, And Sports,” by Captain J. Forsyth (1889): I, myself, believe ... that there really is only one variety of tiger in all peninsular India. It is only to extreme specimens that the above distinctive names are applied; and the great majority are of an intermediate character, and not distinguished by any particular name. The larger and older the animal, the more yellow his coat becomes, and the fainter and further apart are the stripes. Small tigers are sometimes so crowded with the black stripes as almost to approach the appearance of a melanoid variety.
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.
According to “The Book Of Ser Marco Polo, The Venetian,” translated by Colonel Henry Yule, C.B., 1875. Chapter XXII. Of the Kingdom of Coilum: ”There are in this country many and divers beasts quite different frm those of other parts of the world. Thus there are lions black all over, with no mixture of any other colour.” Yule adds a note (Note 5) “Black Tigers and black Leopards are not very rare in Travancore (see Welsh's Mil. Reminiscences,. II. 102).” This footnote, however, is based on other accounts.
In “The Imperial And Asiatic Quarterly Review,” Vol.8 , January-April, 1894, it states “As to Arthania Ibn Haukal says that no stranger may enter there: for the people there put to death without mercy any stranger who visits their country. They bring thence the skins of black tigers (babr), and black foxes, and lead. The merchants of Kokiana traffic in these things.” It isn’t possible to determine whether babr refers to a tiger or panther.
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, 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 a letter (written by his son) dated October 1913, from Burma: “ Have you ever heard of such a thing as a black Tiger, not leopard ? While up at Kaukkwe in the Bhamo district, I went to the Twins (open grassy spaces in the forest) for Tsine, but on returning about 10 a.m. near the edge of a Twin we heard a grunting at intervals of about ten or fifteen seconds. I insisted that it was a pig wallowing, but my shikari said he thought it was a tsine about to calve. We followed up the sound and then hearing a deep guttural grunt, we knew it was a Tiger. I told the shikari I was off home, and then put up my hand to show him a road out of the Lwin, when from about 10 yards off in front of us a big black mass made two bounds and was away. I let off my .577 at it at about 15 yards range, and I think hit it in the stomach. The animal being quite black, I turned to the shikari and told him it was a pig, while he insisted it was a bear, but on tracking up we found enormous pug marks (they measured 1 foot 8 inches round). After the shot it went on for some 5 or 6 yards, stopped for a moment, and then went on another hundred yards and started growling again. We then left and returned next day, but could not find it. It was evidently hit, as it had torn up a lot of undergrowth and small bushes. It is a great pity that the animal was not obtained, as even if the remains are found later on, there will probably be no traces of its having been black.” Hauxwell said that his son had shot several Tigers and knew what a black leopard is. The large tracks were certainly those of a Tiger, but whether they were those of the animal he saw, and whether the black appearance was actual or due to deep shade was not certain. Like Colonel Pollok he may have been deceived - at dawn one day Pollok had fired at a “black” Tiger. He followed the tracks when it was lighter, and killed the tiger, but was disappointed to find that it was an ordinary Tiger that had been rolling in the burnt grass, and looked quite black in the dim light (the latter account was given in "Fifty Years’ Reminiscences of India," by Colonel Pollok, 1896.)
”The Oxford Suryey Of The British Empire, Volume II, Asia Including The Indian Empire And Dependencies, Ceylon, British Malaya & Far Eastern Possessions” edited by A. J. Herbertson, M.A., Ph.D. Professor of Geography in the University of Oxford and O. J. R Howarth, MA. Assistant Secretary of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. 1914.: ”Just as white or black tigers have been recorded, so black panthers are not extremely rare, especially in the south of India.” It differentiates between black tigers and black leopards (panthers), but gives a false impression that black tigers might have been frequently met with.
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 reported 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.
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 on 4 September 1936. 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. The creature was later sold and transferred to Calcutta, where R.G Griffiths saw it and wrote to The Times (January 1937).
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." In his letter to The Field on 9 January 1937, AA Dunbar Brander wrote that a couple of years previously, the sportsman and Calcutta barrister J.A. Clough had seen, in the deputy commissioner's bungalow at Betul, Central Provinces, a tiger skin whose background colour was chocolate brown. The deputy commissioner mentioned that a second tiger of this type had been sighted in the area where his own specimen had been killed.
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.
According to “Provincial Geographies of India. Bengal, Bihar and Orissa, Sikkim,” by L. S. S. O’Malley of the Indian Civil Service, Fellow of the Royal Statistical Society and of the Royal Anthropological Institute (1917), ”The Carnivora include many of the Felidae or cat family. The tiger was once so plentiful that it is still commonly spoken of as the Bengal tiger. . . . A black tiger has been seen in Chittagong, and those frequenting the sand dunes along the sea face of the Sundarbans have almost lost their stripes in adaptation to their environment, so that their coats are of a tawny orange with only a few dark lines. “ This refers to the black tiger killed at Chittagong.
WHITE, RED AND BLACK TIGERS – RI POCOCK ((Journal, Bombay Natural Hist. Society, Vol. XXXIII)
Apart from comparatively slight individual or local variations of the normal type of colour, tigers sometimes exhibit striking variations due to suppression of pigment resulting in so-called white tigers or to development of pigment resulting in black tigers. . . Black tigers are much rarer than white tigers. There appear to be only three records. Blanford, in his volume on the Mammalia of the Fauna of British India Series, refers to one seen in Chittagong by Mr. C. T. Buckland in 3846. A full account of the incident was published in the Field,, vol. 73. p. 422, 1889. The animal was found dead, killed by a poisoned arrow, and decomposition was so far advanced that the skin could not be saved. A second was seen near Bhamo and wounded but made its escape, leaving its pug marks as evidence that it had not been mistaken for a large black leopard, as recorded by Mr. Hauxwell (Journ., Bomb. Nat. Hist. Soc., vol. xxii, p. 788). The third, found dead like the first, was seen in the Lushai Hills; but in this instance also the skin could not be saved (Field, 1928, p. 656).
It is interesting to note that these black tigers all came from localities, tolerably near at hand, to the north-east of the Bay of Bengal; and it is significant that black leopards are far more plentiful in what was formerly called Further India than in Peninsular India.
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)
In his article in Country Life, in 1964, Charles Stonor included a report he had collected himself. While in the Mishmi Hills, at the foot of the Assam Himalayas, he had learnt from a local headman that the Mishmi people knew of an occasionally seen creature they called the 'bear tiger', which resembled a normal tiger apart from its black colour. The headman was emphatic that it was not a black panther, but was a black tiger and that when it was observed in sunlight there were discernible tiger stripes (just as there are sometimes discernible stripes on black domestic cats).
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.
On 6 March 2009, the carcase of a purported female black tiger was found in a poacher's snare in Deniyaya, southern Sri Lanka. Tigers are no longer found in Sri Lanka, and closer examinations proved it to be a black leopard. The Sinhalese term 'kotiya' is often used for both leopard and tiger.
If there were once black tigers, what has happened to them? The gene that turns a tabby/striped felid into a solid colour one is the non-agouti gene. It is recessive to the normal agouti gene and can be carried for many generations by striped animals without ever showing up. The trophy hunting by Europeans, along with ongoing habitat destruction, has reduced tiger numbers and fragmented the tiger population. Perhaps the gene has been wiped out.
PSEUDO-MELANISTIC WHITE BENGAL TIGERS
On 30th August, 2010, The Times of India reported the case of a white tiger with abundism (pseudomelanism). On 6th June 2010, a white tiger pair (Anu and Bhishmar) at the Arignar Anna Zoo in Vandalur, India, produced their 2nd litter of 3 white tiger cubs. One of these cubs, Sembian, was different from his siblings as his white coat appeared to be turning black. As this cub matured, it became apparent that the black colour was due to an expansion of the normal black stripes, a condition known as abundism, sometimes referred to as pseudo-melanism. In places, his black stripes were so wide they ran together to produce black patches. Around 80% of its skin was black. By that time, Anu and Bhishmar had produced 13 cubs, but no others showed signs of abundism/pseudo-melanism. Sembian died in 2013 from injuries during mating.
In July 2014, the same thing occurred at the Nandankanan Zoo in Orissa, India. Sneha and Manish, a white mother and orange father, produced a litter of 4 cubs, 2 white and 2 tawny (Subharnshu, Krishna, Snehashish and Ani). Two of these, one orange (Krishna) and one white (Subhranshu), had darker stripes, indications of pseudo-melanism. Over their first year, the black stripes gradually became darker. In August 2016 Sneha and Manish produced a litter of 3 cubs, one of which was pseudo-melanistic; these were named Vicky (melanistic), Mausumi and Chinu. In May 2016 another pair at the same zoo – Renuka and Samrat – produced a stillborn pseudo-melanistic cub. Nandankanan Zoological Park exhibited the pair of one-year-old melanistic tigers in July 2015. In July 2017, Krishna and Subhranshu were released into the nandankanan tiger safari area. The births were reported in the Indian press and zoo's website. Pseudomelanism carrier Manish died of a blood protozoan disease caused by the virus Cytauxzoon felis in September 2018, leaving the zoo with 24 tigers (a reduction from the 56 tigers held in 2000 when Nandankanan Zoo’s tigers were struck by the parasitic disease trypanosomiasis and critics pointed to overcrowding as a factor in the fast spread of the disease.)
In October 2017 a group of researchers from the Bengaluru-based National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS) began to study why some tigers from Odisha are pseudo-melanistic. Led by senior scientist Uma Ramakrishnan, they had already collected saliva and hair samples from the pseudo-melanistic tigers born at Nandankanan Zoological Park. The State has at least 6 such tigers - 3 in Nandankanan Zoo and 3 in Similipal Tiger Reserve; they were first officially discovered in Similipal Tiger Reserve in 2007. The genetic basis of pseudo-melanism in tigers is a mystery that requires genomics to provide an answer. Are they due to inbreeding? In zoos they are definitely due to gene carriers being bred together, however zoo tigers rarely have a free choice of mate. With wild tiger habitats becoming increasingly fragmented, tigers are less able to migrate to other areas and there is less exchange of genes between different populations. This is an ideal situation for recessive genes to “double up” and produce visible changes.
If the increasing number of black tigers is due to “doubling up” caused by inbreeding, is the level of inbreeding detrimental or is the dark colouration, and any other physiological effect of the mutation, beneficial? If pseudomelanism gives tigers (regardless of whether their base colour is white or orange) an advantage, then they would be more successful when breeding and the gene would become more common in the population. If just one pseudomelanistic animal was more successful in siring (or raising) cubs then more animals inherit the gene and the frequency of pseudomelanistic animals in later generations increases. Increased melanin production has been linked to better immunity to viral infection (scientifically studied) and to more tolerant dispositions (hypothesised, but not proven).
In blotched tabby cats, and possibly in king cheetahs, the pattern is due to a mutation of the taqpep gene (Kaelin, Christopher B et al. “Specifying and sustaining pigmentation patterns in domestic and wild cats” Science (New York, N.Y.) vol. 337,6101 (2012): 1536-41). Taqpep establishes the pattern at the embryo stage, and this pattern is implemented by a gene called Edn3 which controls the hair colour and is active at the base of the black hairs.
Gene mutations rarely have a single effect. Genes code for a protein, in this case a protein that increases the amount of melanism in the coat. As well as affecting colouration, melanin plays a role in the immune system. Studies in 2003 linked black fur to improved disease resistance which may explain why melanism persists even if the colour is a disadvantage (Eduardo Eizirik & Stephen O'Brien, US National Cancer Institute, Maryland). At present we don’t know if the same holds true for pseudomelanism/abundism, however a strong immune system would be beneficial in the hot, humid Similipal region and in any region where the cats lively close to one another and disease spreads faster. True melanism has evolved separately many times and is found in around half of all cat species. Studies showed that melanistic cats had changes to a connected gene known as MC1R, a member of a family of genes which code for a protein on the cell membrane; this protein is a key allowing in various viruses, including HIV. Possibly black cats are less susceptible to viral infection and this, rather than better camouflage, is the evolutionary advantage. If melanism confers increased immunity to viral infections, this would explain its prevalence in some areas. It will take more study to find out if there is the same link between immunity and pseudomelanism/abundism.
In domestic cats, black and blotched tabby colours may be linked to a less assertive temperament and a better tolerance of crowding than striped tabby or agouti (ticked). The assertive or reactive temperament is linked to the size of the cat's adrenal glands. If increased black colour is linked to greater tolerance it would also be linked to the size of the adrenal gland. If this is the case, it would allow the pseudomelanistic tigers to coexist better alongside humans. There is currently no evidence to support this. Human encroachment into tiger habitat, as well as habitat fragmentation, may be a factor in increasing the number of “black” tigers.
Just as white tigers are caused by a recessive gene, pseudo-melanism is also caused by a recessive gene, but one that is separate from the colour gene. This means pseudo-melanism can occur in both white tigers and tawny tigers. Normal pattern tigers can carry the recessive gene and it won’t show up unless two carriers breed together and the offspring inherits two copies of the gene. Because these are captive-bred tigers, line-chasing their pedigrees can identify a common ancestor that probably introduced the mutant gene. This leads back to 5 wild-born common ancestors of the pseudo-melanistic cubs. Mohan and Begum of the Rewa line, and Pradeep, Sikha and Rani of the Orissa line. It is highly unlikely that the mutation originated in the Rewa tigers, because their highly inbred descendants would have produced pseudo-melanistic cubs before 2010 (unless the mutation occurred in one of their later descendants). The Orissa tigers are more likely, in particular Rani, a tawny tigress captured in the Similipal forests in 1967, aged 7 weeks. Pseudo-melanism has been observed in wild Similipal tigers.
In 1975, at Nandankanan zoo, Rani was mated to tawny male Deepak who carried the white gene. Their daughter Ganga carried both the white gene and the pseudo-melanism gene. Ganga had a number of descendants, some of whom would have inherited the pseudo-melanism gene and transmitted it to their offspring. After 3 or 4 generations, the gene spread in the Nandankanan tiger gene pool until finally 2 carriers were bred together and produced a pseudo-melanistic cub. Because Ganga carried the white gene, she was bred extensively and has many descendants in captivity. This may have accidentally preserved the pseudo-melanism trait. However, there have been too few melanistic births to be sure which of Ganga’s offspring carried the mutation, as she would not have transmitted it to all her cubs (on average she would have transmitted it to 50% of them), but looking at the pedigrees it was probably transmitted to Debabrata, and possibly to either Pinaki or Jamuna.
In 1999, Laxman, a white male tiger from the Orissa line and a descendant of Rani, was sent to the National Zoological Park in Delhi to breed with their Rewa line white tigers. It is possible that Laxman carried the melanistic gene and transmitted it to some of his descendants, including Anu and Bhishmar, Sembian’s parents.
If the pseudo-melanism gene was present in Rani back in 1967, why didn’t it show up earlier? Most likely this was due to the zoo avoiding close inbreeding in their Orissa line of white tigers (i.e. avoiding sibling-sibling or parent-offspring matings). There was only one father-daughter pairing, Deepak to Ganga, and offspring were outcrossed to the unrelated Rewa line. The Deepak-Ganga pairing did not have produce pseudo-melanistic cubs, so it appears that only Rani carried the pseudo-melanism gene and she transmitted it to Ganga. There are no other recorded close matings at Nandankanan, and they have outcrossed to wild tigers to keep the gene pool diverse. The pseudo-melanistic cubs at Nandankanan are 4 generations removed from any common ancestor, and 6 generations removed from Rani.
Chart 02-1: Orissa Lines (Pseudo-Melanistic Tigers)
Considering the degree of inbreeding in zoo and circus tigers, why haven’t more pseudo-melanistic tigers been born around the world? In fact, several have been born. In the early 1970s, Oklahoma City Zoo's pair of tigers produced three unusually dark cubs in a single litter, one of which might have been pseudo-melanistic, but was killed by the mother (2 of its siblings became lighter with age). Although I’ve referred to the gene as a recessive (indicating a dominant/recessive pair of alleles at the same position on the chromosome), it is possibly a hypostatic gene. Hypostatic means it is hidden by other genes on other chromosomes. Hypostatic genes can be present, but will show up even less frequently than ordinary recessive genes even if two carriers are bred together. That’s because the two carriers may have other genes that mask the trait. While an ordinary recessive gene may appear in 1 out of 4 offspring born to 2 carriers (on average across many litters), a hypostatic gene might show up in 1 out of 16 offspring (or fewer) born to 2 carriers on average.
The Telegraph, Calcutta. Tigress delivers stillborn black cub. May 26, 2016
Times of India. Bhubaneswar zoo gets three tiger cubs. Aug 5, 2016.
DNA Bhubaneswar, Ever seen a melanistic tiger? Visit Nandankanan Zoo to get a glimpse of rare black tiger cubs. Dec 29, 2015
THE SIMILIPAL BLACK TIGERS
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.
CHINESE BLACK TIGERS AND MIS-IDENTIFICATION
Historical Chinese literature also contains reports of black tigers, though it is hard to say whether these were real or mythical beasts.
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.
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.
REFERENCES AND USEFUL INFORMATION
Banjie, T. 1983. Tigers in China (1983)
Buckland, CF. 1889. Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society(JBNHS) (Vol iv)
Buckland, CF. The Field (vol lxxiii, p42, p789)
Buckland, CF. JBNHS (vol iv, p149)
Burton, Brigadier-General. "Sport and Wildlife in the Deccan"
Caldwell, J. C. 1954. Our friends the tigers. Hutchinson and Co., London, 176 pp.
Caldwell, H. R. 1924. Blue Tiger. New York, 261 pp. (quoted after Allen, 1938).
Capper, Col S. JBNHS (vol xxiii, p343)
Carter, WH. 1936. Letters, The Times (16 October 1936)
Dollman, Capt Guy. 1936. The Times (14 October 1936)
Gee, EP. "The Wildlife of India"
Hauxwell, AT. JBNHS (Vol xxxii, p788)
Mishra, G H. 1996. Black Tigers of Similipal Tiger Reserve, Orissa. in Indian Forester, V122, No 10, Oct 1996.
Pocock, JBNHS (Vol xxxiii, p505)
Pocock RI, 1929. Tigers. J. Bombay Nat. Hist. Soc., 33:505-541.
Pocock RI, 1939. Fauna of British India, including Ceylon and Burma. Mammalia, vol. 1. Primates and Carnivora. Taylor and Francis Ltd., London, 464 pp.
Prater, SH. 1937. JBNHS, January 1937
Prusty, BC, and Singh, LAK. 1997. Black on white or White on Black. Zoos’ Pring, v XII, No 1, Jan 1997
Reuters. 1937 The London Evening News (10 October 1936)
Robinson's Genetics for Cat Breeders & Veterinarians 4th Ed (current edition)
Singh, LAK. 1996. Black Tigers: Reality or Myth. WWF-India, WWF Tiger Update, v1 No 4, Oct 1996
Singh, LAK. 1999. Born Black: The Melanistic Tiger in India. WWF-India, 66 pages
Stonor, C. 1964. Rare sightings of black tigers. Country Life, Sept. 17, 1964, p. 691.
Ullas Karanth, K. "The Way Of The Tiger"
Valmik Thapar, Valmik. "Tiger The Ultimate Guide"
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