Extremely Rare “Pale Tiger” Photographed in India

Fagjun | Published 2017-07-07 23:05

"We saw a white-looking tiger sitting on the hillside, half concealed by the undergrowth, and looking at us."
[Photo by Nilanjan Ray]

Wildlife photographer Nilanjan Ray has not only had a sighting of a very rare pale tiger, he has managed to take photos of it as well.

Ray was driving through South India's Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve with a guide when he spotted the tiger about 200 feet away. At first, he didn't realize that he was photographing an extremely rare animal. Eventually, Ray realized that he wasn't taking photos of just any tiger. He was taking photos of possibly the only tiger of its kind living in the wild.

The tiger was noticeably paler than the common orange and black tigers we see more often. It had much lighter fur, almost white in appearance. Its fur was off-white with golden-brown patches instead of the usual orange coloring. Ray says that another tiger with the normal orange coloring came along, and may have been the pale tiger's sibling or parent. The two tigers played a game of hide-and-seek with Ray before disappearing into the brush.

The Pale Tiger vs White Tiger

Don't confuse pale tigers with white tigers (pictured above).

This tiger may be the palest tiger living in the wild. However, it's not actually an albino or a white tiger. The last wild white tiger was shot and killed in 1958, and the white tigers living today are in captivity. No one has seen an actual white tiger in the wild for decades. Existing white tigers, unfortunately, are quite pitiful. They lack genetic diversity, which causes a lot of severe health problems. The tiger that Ray photographed wasn't a white tiger because it lacked a pinkish coloration around the eyes characteristic of white tigers.

Ray photographed a pale tiger, whose coloring is actually the result of a genetic mutation called color morphism. Biologists say that when mating pools are large enough to allow for randomness, there's a better chance for the varied exchange of genes. This is what causes the coloration of pale tigers. Some people also breed pale tigers in captivity using genes from a white tiger.

Belinda Wright, founder of the Wildlife Protection Society of India, says that pale tiger sightings are very rare, likely because the tigers themselves are rare. Wright remembers seeing one of these pale tigers back in the 1980s, but hasn't seen one since. The tiger she saw also wasn't as pale as the one Ray took photos of.

Camera Traps and Secrecy

When a tiger population has a large gene pool, there's a chance that paleness might appear in an individual or two.

Ray wasn't able to spend much time with the tiger. Eventually, the tiger and its normal-colored companion disappeared into the forest. However, Ray was able to take enough photos for experts to make some conclusions about the tiger. Experts were able to determine that the tiger wasn't a white tiger, and that it hasn't reached maturity yet. However, experts were unable to tell whether the tiger was male or female.

The forest department in the area where Ray saw the tiger are about to set up camera traps in hopes of gaining additional footage of the rare pale tiger. It's likely that authorities won't reveal the exact location of the tiger in order to protect it from poachers or disruptive tourists. This is of course for the best, as this rare tiger probably needs all the protection it can get.

Hey! Where are you going?? Subscribe!

Get weekly science updates in your inbox!