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Captive white lions, white tigers and inbreeding

WORRISOME WHITE LIONS?
 
Kamala Balachandran 
 
Hence all the white lions that are there in the zoos, like all the white tigers that are on display, are born and bred in captivity.
 
In any jungle, what is the rarest of animals- the creature that comes along only once in a generation?’
I thought about it and said: ‘The white tiger’.
 
These lines are from the Booker prize winning novel “The White Tiger”.
 
A wild life expert reading this would probably say that the inspector’s words are not quite accurate. A white tiger coming along in a jungle doesn’t happen once in one generation. It is much rarer than that. So rare that that the last Royal Bengal White, was sighted in the wild in 1951! 
 
In May that year Maharaja Shri Martand Singh of Rewa, was hunting in the jungles of Bandhavgarh when a report came in that a Tigress with four cubs, had been spotted. One of the cubs was white! In those days since hunting was for trophy, the King’s party rushed to get the rare one. They managed to shoot the mother and two cubs, but luckily for posterity, the white one escaped. Later, when the cub was rediscovered, the maharaja had a change of heart. He wanted it captured alive and taken to his palace. The Raja was so captivated by the white cub that he named it “Mohan” or the “enchanter”. Mohan’s progeny carried the recessive white gene and over the years many white tigers were born in captivity. Today the white tiger population in all the zoos of the world put together is several hundreds.
 
If white Tigers are a rarity, what of white Lions?
 
Unlike the white tiger gene, the white lion gene is not found in the Indian lions. Since none of our zoos have a white lion, many of us are not even aware of the existence of white lions. So you might be surprised to know that in all, there are about 500 white lions in the various zoos of the world.
 
Like the white tiger, the white lions too are rare in the wild. For the white colouring to happen two copies of the same genetic mutation must be present in the child. That is, both the parents, even if they themselves are not white, must carry the white gene.
If by chance a white cub is born, its survival is tougher because the colour white makes it difficult for the animals to camouflage itself in the wild.
 
And even if it were to survive, the poachers would keenly hunt it down for the high price that the coat would fetch.
 
Hence all the white lions that are there in the zoos, like all the white tigers that are on display, are born and bred in captivity. 
 
But conservation ecologists are not happy about the intensive inbreeding that gets done to produce pure white creatures. They say that snow white lions may look pretty, but they are just not healthy.
 
So a challenging program to reintroduce white lions into the jungle has now been taken up. In a carefully phased long-term reintroduction program, in the year 2006, two male and two female white lions, were introduced into the Sambona Wildlife Reserve on the Western Cape of South Africa. The pride was allowed to roam free in a 130,000 acre park and allowed to mix freely with the other, tawny coloured lions in the park.
 
This October, Global White Lion Protection Trust proudly announced the exciting news of the birth of three white cubs. It is very big news for the conservationists as the cubs are the first to be born in the wild as a result of the reintroduction program. 
 
Would a descendent of Mohan ever get to be born in the jungles of Rewa?
 
http://www.deccanherald.com/Content/Oct312008/sesame2008103097896.asp
 
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Learn more about big cats and Big Cat Rescue at http://bigcatrescue.org
 
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