Some of the earliest white tigers known to the western world lived in the wilds of Assam over 100-200 years ago. Surprisingly, these were “snow white” tigers – ie “stripe-less”, or with stripes only visible in certain lights.
Assam is in the north-east of India, south of the eastern Himalayas. The snow white tigers were found in the far NE districts of Dibrugarh & Tinsukia, and also in the Khasi and Jynteah hills of Meghalaya (which used to be part of Assam), up until 1908.
I have found records of 9 wild white tigers documented in Assam/Meghalaya between approx 1811 and 1908. 7 were specified as stripe-less, details were not given for 2. (There are a few other snow-whites known from this period, but the location was not specified.)
Approximate dates and districts follow – full details and links to sources are given at the end of this article.
Nine Tigers From Assam:
1811 Tinsukia: White tiger captured
1851 Dibrugarh: White tiger killed, “completely white”
1879 Jaintia Hills: 2 white tigers, “quite white, just showing stripes in the light”
1891 (before) Khasi Hills: white tiger “nearly white”
1899 Dibrugarh: White tiger shot, “stripes hard to see”
1900 Boga Bagh: 2 white tigers, faint lemon patch, otherwise “quite white, faint stripes”
1908 Assam, district not specified: white tiger killed
These 9 tigers may have been only the tip of the iceberg. We don’t know how many more lived wild and unseen or unrecorded, or how many there were before 1811.
It is intriguing that the white tigers of Assam were snow-white rather than striped.
The white coat is caused by a single recessive gene (identified), and the suppression of dark color on the stripes is thought to be caused by another recessive gene (thought to be the “wide-band” gene). So if the snow-white coat is a multiple-recessive-gene trait we might expect most white tigers in the area to be white with dark stripes, with only a small % of snow-white – assuming they interbred with the orange tigers. Quite the opposite of what has been found !
Assam’s wild unexplored hills and forests could well have hidden them, but they might not have originated in Assam. There are ancient records of white tigers in nearby China (see Records of White Tigers in the Wild). There is also a belief that white tigers originated in the Himalayas (also nearby) – I have found one early reference to this, but no corroboration so far (see below).
Why did they die out ?
There was a belief in Assam that whoever killed a white tiger would soon die themselves. Unfortunately, that didn’t stop hunters from shooting all they could find. The hunting by westerners started in the 19th century – Assam became a famous tea growing area in the 1830’s, which brought more Westerners to the area.
White tigers are usually portrayed as an “anomaly” that just pops up every now and then, at the rate of “1 in 10,000” – but the prevalence of snow-white tigers in Assam does not fit this theory. There is more to this story, to be continued in a future article….
Tiger Habitat in Assam
Assam is an area of heavy rainfall and high humidity, prone to heavy fogs at night and morning – times when tigers are most active. It is one of the richest biodiversity areas in the world, although, like most, it’s “wilds” have been severely depleted. It has a variety of different habitats from cloud forests to tall grasslands to swamps. Gaur and barasingha and water buffalo still live here. Perfect for tigers.
There are thought to be only about 200 tigers left in the area today (none of them white).
Snow white tigers were documented living here over 100-200 years ago. I can easily picture them thriving here: melting into the thick white mists at night as they hunt in the grasslands on the edge of the forest; then in the morning returning to the dense jungle to lie up for the day.
White Tigers in the Himalayas
J. Hampden Porter, writing about white tigers in “Wild Beasts” 1894 stated:
“In the Himalayas they have been shot at an elevation of eight thousand feet above the sea, and, besides being what is called white, were maned.”
Unfortunately he does not give the source of his statement about maned white tigers in the Himalayas (I assume by “maned” he means with large neck ruff).
It is however, entirely possible, as tigers have recently been found living 13,000 feet in the Himalayas of Bhutan. We tend to think of tigers as “jungle animals”, but they also live in a wide variety of other habitats.
Sources of the Assam Tiger Records
Information about tigers in the 19th century and earlier is scanty, but we do have some records from the hunters and officials in the area, of the tigers they shot. There was also an Assamese language monthly journal printed in the 19th century, called the Orunodai, which recorded current events.
Back in those days, there was no tiger census, no camera trapping, and the first scientific study of tigers in the wild was not until the 1960s – by then there were no wild white tigers left to study. Information we have on the historic distribution and numbers of tigers in general has to come from the records of the people who were there at the time – naturalists, hunters, etc.
Following are the details recorded for the white tigers of Assam, with background information and links to the original sources.
1811 Tinsukia and 1851 Dibrugarh
The March 1851 issue of The Orunodoi included a report about the killing of a white tiger, with an illustration.
The Orunodoi was the first Assamese language newspaper, published monthly from 1846 to 1879, “devoted to religion, science and general intelligence”. To the Assamese of the day it was almost an encyclopedia of information, and today it is an important historical source.
In an article in “Current Science” Vol 100, No 2, 25 Jan 2011, Tikendrajit Gogoi (Dept of Zoology, DHSK College in Dibrugarh Assam) described this record from the Orunodoi:
A white tiger was beaten to death in Dibrugarh district, Assam, and its head and skin were brought to ‘Shrijut Doctor Sharlok Sahab’. The fur of the tiger was long and completely white without any spots…Capturing of a white tiger from Sadiya (district Tinsukia, Assam) during the [reign of] Ahom King Kamaleswar Singha (1795-1811) is also mentioned in the report.
The Dr Sharlok referred to may be Dr Thomas Travers Sherlock, who went on to become a surgeon-major in service in Bengal.
1879 Jaintia Hills
Colonel Fitzwilliam Thomas Pollok served in Burma for 13 years and Assam for 7. He was an avid hunter, travelled extensively in the area and wrote several books detailing his experiences. His 1879 book “Sport in British Burmah, Assam, and the Cassyah and Jyntiah Hills” was intended as a sort of guide book for other sportsmen to the area. In it he wrote:
“I never heard of a black tiger, though I have seen the skins of three white ones. Two had been procured by Mr Shadwell, Assistant Commissioner of the Jynteah Hills , the third I saw at E. Wards, in Wimpole St. The two obtained in the Jynteah hills were quite white but when turned about in a strong light just a faint mark or two could be seen to indicate that they belonged to a tiger at all. The one at E. Ward’s was a splendid skin, very large, but with faint reddish stripes on a white ground. “
He mentions the 3 skins again in his 1900 book “Wild Sports of Burma and Assam”.
John Bird Shadwell was born in Bengal in 1818. He became Assistant Commissioner in 1862. Edwin Ward was Rowland Ward’s father (of “Rowland Ward’s Records of Big Game” fame). He set up his taxidermy shop in London in 1857.
Before 1891: Khasi Hills and 1891 Northern India
A “nearly white” tiger was killed in 1891, the skin displayed at a meeting of the ZSL, and information reported about a similar tiger killed in the Khasia hills.
In the “Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London”, June 1891, p372:
Mr Howard Saunders, FZS, exhibited and made remarks on a nearly white skin of a Tiger from Northern India. The animal had been sent for preservation to Messrs Keilich and Son by Major D Robinson, Lancashire Fuseliers, Poona. From the skull and the condition of the teeth it appeared to be an adult male in the prime of life, the incisors being sharp and perfect. Col HH Godwin-Austen FZS, remarked that in his long experience in India he had only met with one similar example.
Further details were given in an article in the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 9 July 1891:
Major Godwin Austen, who spoke on the subject, mentioned his having killed one on the Khasia Hills, and alluded to another as having been shewn at the Society’s meetings many years ago….Major Robinson’s skin was remarkable in that the ground tint was whitish grey (in this resembling the snow leopard) with very faint brownish cross stripes…
Although we only have HH Godwin-Austen’s word for the earlier tiger from the Khasi Hills, he is a very credible witness indeed. He worked for the Trigonometrical Survey of India, surveying the Khasi and Jaintia hills plus other areas; was a prominent geologist and ornithologist, and well-respected author of several scientific works.
A white tiger was shot by WH Greenish, manager of the Nabarkutia Estate, and the skin sent to Mr Newing, Calcutta taxidermist. The event was reported in several newspapers of the day, and in his 1907 book, “The Game Animals of India, Burma, Malaya and Tibet”, Richard Lydekker described it thus:
“in March 1899 a white tiger was shot in Upper Assam and the skin sent to Calcutta….the property of Mr W J Consadine, Major HDC Swayne wrote as follows: The colour of the skin is like that of a polar bear, with the faintest lines to indicate stripes. The ground-colour is bright creamy white , exactly like a polar bear, the darker lines representing stripes, are about the dull white of a rather dirty white cat which has been out all night on the roof.”
The book also contains a photograph of the white tiger skin.
1900 Boga Bagh
Edward Pritchard Gee was a tea planter and naturalist who spent most of his life in India, including time in Assam. He wrote articles for the Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society and a book “The Wildlife of India”. In his article “Albinism and Partial Albinism in Tigers” and in his book, he records 2 white tigers from Assam:
“Boga Bagh tea estate in Upper Assam is so called from the two white tigers found there at the beginning of this century, and one of them had ‘a lemon-coloured patch on the back of the neck, otherwise it was white with faint stripes’.
1908 Assam, district not specified
In August 1908 several newspapers reported the killing of a snow-white tiger in Assam, (eg The Aberdeen Journal, 28 Aug 1908). The tiger had been in a fight with a buffalo, and was tracked by 2 native shikaris who then killed it. The skin was to have been sent to the Calcutta museum. It was described as “a great animal of snowy whiteness….. a magnificent white tiger”.
….and that was quite possibly the last of the wild white tigers to be found in Assam.