Purebred white Amur tigers occurred in America 1985 and Korea 1999: born into the studbook-registered captive population of P.t. altaica. Unfortunately, due to a belief that the white gene occurs only in the Bengal subspecies, both times it was assumed that these tigers must have been hybrids, “contaminated” with Bengal genes – an assumption I will show to be incorrect.
White Amur Tiger (P.t.altaica) © Timofey Kosachev | Dreamstime.com
Here, I trace the pedigree of these white tigers, back to one male captured from the wild in an area where wild white Amur tigers were recorded historically.
So we have a wild-born tiger originating from a wild white tiger-producing area, and we have white Siberian tigers born into the studbook-registered captive population – with a clear line of transmission between the two.
Therefore it should be accepted that the white gene is part of the genetic diversity of Panthera tigris altaica (Amur/Siberian tigers), as it is in Panthera tigris tigris (Bengal tigers).
- Seoul Zoo, Korea: 1999-2000
- RFBC, Florida, USA: 1985
- New Information: 2022 – White Siberians in the Wild
- Robert Baudy’s Siberian Tigers: 1960 onwards
- Other possibilities
- Notes and Sources
1. Seoul Zoo, Korea: 1999-2000
In May 1999 a pure-bred Siberian tigress cub was born in Seoul Zoo, Korea – she was white with black stripes. Again, in September 2000, another white tigress was born to the same parents. These 2 tigers, Be-La and Baekwoon were to cause some consternation when Seoul Zoo applied to register their tigers in the Siberian Tiger Studbook. [Note 1]
It is a widely-held belief that the white gene only occurs in the Bengal tiger subspecies. Based on this, it was decided that the Seoul line of tigers “must” have been “contaminated” with Bengal genes at some point. Genetic testing was used to build a family tree of Seoul’s tigers, showing that there had been no “contamination” during their time there. Seoul’s studbook-registered Amur tigers had originally been obtained from zoos in USA, so the pedigree of these tigers was researched, and it was decided that the “culprit” was a tigress named Volga/Teeger, the mother of Hodoli (one of the tigers sent to Seoul in 1986). It was assumed that Volga’s father was not Tchekoff as recorded, but “must be” some other unknown tiger with Bengal genes. Therefore, Volga and all her descendants were retained in the studbook, but marked as being hybrids, and removed from breeding.
Note that this was determined based on pedigree only, on the assumption that the presence of the white gene “indicates hybridization” – there was no genetic testing on Volga.
But my study of the pedigree reveals that Volga, and therefore Be-La and Baekwoon too, were descended from a wild-born Siberian tiger captured in an area in which white tigers once lived in the wild.
So why did they choose Volga as the contaminated culprit?
2. RFBC, Florida, USA: 1985
Robert Baudy with white Siberian tiger Boris. Clipping from The Tampa Tribune, 2 Aug 1985.
Volga was bred at Robert Baudy’s Rare Feline Breeding Compound in Florida, USA. Baudy was a professional and expert breeder of rare wild cats, who supplied zoos worldwide. In 1985, Baudy had presented to the world a white tiger cub named Boris – white with black stripes – a pure-bred Siberian tiger. At this time, all known white tigers in captivity were either pure Bengal (mainly in India) or Bengal-Siberian crossbreeds from USA, so a white pure Siberian was extremely rare and valuable.
Baudy’s claim that Boris was pure Siberian met with a mixed reception. Baudy’s Siberian tigers were studbook-registered, but because of the assumption that the white gene only occurred in the Bengal subspecies, many then and today were skeptical, and assumed that his stock must have been “contaminated”. There was no way back then for Baudy to prove otherwise.
However, that assumption is based on outdated information.
3. New Information: 2022 – White Siberians in the Wild
My recent study of historical records from China and Korea confirms what others have suspected, that white tigers did occur within the range of both the Amur/Siberian and the closely-related South China subspecies. Importantly, where there were white tigers, there would also have been orange heterozygous tigers, carrying the white gene in a hidden state.
One of Baudy’s original breeding tigers was a male captured in one of these wild white tiger-producing areas, and the ancestry of the Seoul white tigers traces directly back to this male.
More details of Baudy’s breeding are given in Part 4 below, but first one question needs to be answered: If Siberian tigers can naturally carry the white gene, why did white tigers only show up in one line of the captive population ? The answer is that, although Siberian tigers once roamed a large area from Russia through NE China, the captive population is heavily skewed towards one area.
The majority of the founders came from Russia’s Far East – an area not known for white tigers, and an area with a severely depleted amount of genetic variation due to its tiger population falling to a bottleneck of an estimated 20 animals during the 1930s. By comparison, only a handful of founders came from NE China or Korea, both areas where white tigers occurred in the wild. Of these, of course, not all would have carried the white gene, so it is quite reasonable that there might have been only one carrier captured and bred.
In addition, after the early inbreeding in the captive Amur population in the 1960s-70s, much care has been taken to avoid inbreeding, and there has been little opportunity for a white gene to double-up and show up. It is possible that the gene is there, slowly spreading throughout the population and will one day show up again. Let us hope if that happens, that the officials do not again leap to the unnecessary conclusion that their stock is “contaminated”.
4. Robert Baudy’s Siberian Tigers: 1960 onwards
When Baudy presented white Siberian tiger Boris to the world in 1985, he stated that Boris was the result of years of “line-breeding and cross-breeding initiated in 1968”. This implies that the white gene was present in his tigers right at the beginning of his breeding enterprise – whether he knew this back then, or only realized it in hindsight, I cannot say (I suspect hindsight). So let’s take a look at his original breeding stock.
Click to enlarge.
In 1960-61 Baudy purchased a number of pure-bred Siberian tigers. He obtained 4 tigers from Birmingham Zoo in Alabama USA, and kept 3 – Tara, Doutchka and Mandchu. These were born to a pair of wild-caught tigers from Vladivostok, King and Mary. The studbook-registered King-Mary line cubs were bred sibling to sibling, repeatedly, at 3 facilities throughout the 1960s-70s – Baudy’s RFBC, a Colorado Springs zoo, and an Oklahoma zoo, resulting in 40-50 surviving cubs. Such inbreeding was common practice in those days, it was done to keep the Amur subspecies “pure” when there were few Amur tigers available. There was more inbreeding further down this line, mother to son, uncle to niece. With this amount of inbreeding, if the line had carried the white gene it should have shown up – but it didn’t, so it is safe to assume that they did not carry it.
However, Baudy had another studbook registered Amur tiger, named Korea, captured in Korea in January 1961, and obtained through a French dealer. There were no wild tigers in S Korea by then, so this tiger could have come from 2 likely places. Either the border of N Korea and Manchuria in the Changbai Mountains, a last stronghold of the Amur tiger in China/Korea; or the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. After the war, this zone became a haven for wild animals, and there were reports in 1955 of servicemen being mauled by tigers – a S Korean soldier even captured a litter of 3 or 4 cubs there, to be hand-reared. So a similar capture 5 years later is entirely possible. Note that both these areas had wild white tigers historically.
Baudy also obtained a pair of tigers from Ueno Zoo, Tokyo, Japan – Ueno was breeding Korean tigers at that time (as recorded in the IZY), their ancestors possibly obtained from N Korea during the Japanese occupation (1910-1945).
Baudy recorded both his Amur tiger litters AND a Korean tiger litter in the IZY and in articles he wrote for the LIOC – this shows both his confidence that the tigers originated in Korea and his intention to keep the subspecies pure. The Ueno Zoo Korean tigers, and the Korean cubs Baudy bred, were not registered in the studbook, and there is no further trace of their breeding – this does not necessarily mean they were not purebred – it is likely that the cubs were sold, or died, and the line was no longer used for breeding, perhaps the Ueno tigress died or was not a good breeder. The male continued in Baudy’s circus act, and died in 1975.
Around this time, it was decided that the Korean subspecies was to be included in the Amur subspecies, and so Baudy bred Korea to Amur tigress Doutchka. There was only one recorded cub, a male named Bamarka (Dec 1965), and Korea died just one year later, fathering no further litters.
Korea’s line continued through Baudy’s breeding, but, unlike the King-Mary line, there was no close inbreeding, so no opportunity for the white gene to double-up and show up. Also, most of the surviving cubs early in this line were male, so it wasn’t until Bamarka’s daughter Nadia was bred to her half-brother Tchekoff that a white cub could have shown – but as luck would have it, it seems that Nadia did not inherit the white gene (there was only a 50% chance she would).
In the 1980s Baudy began to produce white tigers. Around this time, he also stopped registering his Siberian tigers in the studbook – I suspect a business decision to prevent others from breeding valuable white Siberian tigers for their own profit, as he had already let several tigers from this white-producing line go to other facilities. (One of these had more cubs elsewhere, and Baudy made sure to obtain 3 of these cubs to add to his breeding stock). Not registering them does not mean they were not purebred – the studbook keeper relies on the tiger owners to communicate the information. [Note 2]
Since Boris is not in the studbook, I do not have the breeding records that prove his mother and father, but can make an educated guess and the chart I have prepared shows how the white gene would be passed on through the studbook-registered generations, how easily a white tiger could be produced and why that did not happen until the 1980s. [Note 3]
Baudy went on to breed more white Siberian tigers, which were sent to zoos in Europe, USA, and China. At their destinations they were billed variously as P.t.altaica (ie Amur), Bengal tigers, or simply P.tigris – showing the confusion around which subspecies they belonged to. Some descendants were subsequently bred to the more common Bengal/Siberian crossbreed white tigers.
So here we have a studbook-registered orange Siberian tiger originating from an area where wild white tigers were known to exist. He had few descendants early on, which were bred to avoid inbreeding. The hidden white gene slowly spread through Baudy’s breeding stock until about 20 years later when it finally doubled up and produced Baudy’s white tigers – and again 15 years later at Seoul Zoo.
There is no need to assume that Baudy’s tigers – and hence the Seoul Zoo tigers – were “contaminated” with Bengal genes. There is documented evidence of a clear transmission from the wild for the Seoul white tigers, and rationally inferred for Baudy’s. It should be recognized that the white gene is part of the Amur or Siberian tiger’s genetic diversity, just as it is part of the Bengal.
Unless unequivocal proof can be provided to show that the Seoul white tigers and their line are indeed hybrids, they should be reinstated as pure-bred Amur tigers. Likewise, if a white tiger pops up again within the studbook-registered Amur population, it should not be automatically assumed to be a hybrid, based only on an outdated assumption.
As the Amur population is already of low genetic diversity, it does not make sense to deplete it further by excluding Korea’s line from future breeding.
6. Other Possibilities
There is another line of purebred Amur tigers which has been involved in the production of white tigers. This is the Mike-Sheba line, originating from Manchuria. One of their cubs, Kubla, was bred to a Bengal tigress Susie, and their cubs, when bred together, produced white tigers (for example Tony). It is usually assumed that the white gene came from Bengal Susie, but as the Mike-Sheba line is also present in the Seoul white tigers, and at Baudy’s facility, it merits investigation.
In 1977 Baudy obtained a tiger from the Mike-Sheba line. This was not one of the Bengal-Siberian crossbreeds, but a purebred Amur male, Sasha, born to Kubla’s sister Nina. Nina’s descendants have all been outcrossed, with no inbreeding, and no opportunity for a white gene to double-up and show, if it is there. There is no record of Sasha being used for breeding, but he could have been after Baudy stopped registering in the Studbook.
The Seoul Zoo also had a Mike-Sheba line tigress – Karla, a daughter of Kubla’s pure Amur daughter Kathryn. It is only in Karla’s descendants that the Seoul white tigers appear – notably, they do not appear on the other side of the chart (not shown in my diagram), where Hodoli was bred to a tigress from a different bloodline.
However, checking through Kubla’s line, although his daughter Kathryn and her descendants were mostly outcrossed, she was bred to two of her sons, and two of her cub siblings were also bred together. No white tigers appeared, so it seems unlikely that Kathryn, and therefore Karla, carried the white gene.
What does this mean? It is possible, but unlikely, that the Mike-Sheba line carried the white gene.
7. Notes and Sources
The article above was researched and written by L Drummond, and published 30 October 2022. Use of this article text in full or part is welcomed, but must include attribution to “Purebred White Siberian Tigers, by L Drummond, 30 Oct 2022”, with a link to the article or to whitetigertruths.wordpress.com if possible.
Graphics labelled “whitetigertruths.wordpress.com” may be shared, but the label must be retained. Other graphics remain the property of their copyright holders and permission may be needed to reproduce them.
IZY = International Zoo Yearbook
LIOC = Long Island Ocelot Club
International Amur Tiger Studbook 2018, Zoological Garden Leipzig, Peter Müller.
Wild White Tigers in China and Korea – Oct 2022, L. Drummond
White Tiger Genetics – The Basics – L. Drummond
Database of Historic Tiger Breeding in America – L. Drummond
For Seoul Zoo, Korea:
[Note 1]: Baekwoon’s registered name is Hight, but she is commonly referred to by her nickname: “The names of the three members of the Seoul Zoo…” 29 Dec 2009 https://www.donga.com/news/View?gid=25094141&date=20091229
“Hoo Heung” Tiger Family’s Sad Genealogy… by Lee Jin Han, 17 May 2005 www.donga.com/news/article/all/20050517/8190099/1 (Several other Korean news stories and websites corroborate this information.)
Korean Eco-Zoo Concept Development, Seoul Grand Park zoo, Workshop Report 29 Oct – 2 Nov 2000. By Seoul Grand Park and Seoul National University College of Veterinary Medicine.
For Baudy, RFBC, Florida:
Baudy, the Animal Man: The Biography of Robert Baudy/with Sandra Thompson. 1996. Rainbow Books Inc. USA.
International Zoo Yearbooks: 1965-1972
International Studbook 1981, 1982, 1983, 1987
Various US Federal Register entries.
Hand Raising of Large Felines by Robert & Charlotte Baudy in LIOC newsletter 11 May 1967; Plus >20 more LIOC articles from 1968 onwards, by or about Baudy.
I also referenced well over 100 news reports from 1963 onwards to help build a picture of Baudy’s tiger breeding. Listed below are a sample that contained specific information used above. These 6 papers can be accessed on newspapers.com (subscription may be needed).
- Newsday (Suffolk Edition) Melville, New York, 27 Mar 1964 p28
- Hartford Courant, Connecticut, 24 Apr 1965 p13
- Newsday (Nassau Edition) from Hempstead, New York Mar 15, 1967, p27
- The Tampa Tribune from Tampa, Florida, 2 Aug 1985, p4-West Pasco
- The Parsons Sun, Kansas, Sun June 4 1955, p7
- The Cincinnati Enquirer, 26 Jun 1955, p35
[Note 2]: Baudy did not register all his purebred Amur tigers – for example I found some occasions where there were more tigers born in a litter than were recorded in the studbook. By examining old editions of the studbook, it seems that he stopped registering births from 1981 onwards, and by 1987 his facility had dropped off the list of registered holders. Although Baudy had other registered tigers not involved in his white tiger breeding, it appears that he stopped communicating their details too, and they are marked “ltf” in the studbook.
[Note 3]: Baudy is quoted as saying (of Boris) that “the mother, born 6 yrs ago at the Oklahoma City Zoo…” (so 1979) – BUT there were no tiger cubs recorded in Oklahoma Zoo that year, as their female, Olga, had died in May 1976. Baudy may have been referring to the grandmother, Sabrina, who was born in Oklahoma 1976, then transferred to Baudy, had cubs in 1979, one of which was the father or mother of Boris – and this may have been subsequently condensed and confused by the reporter.