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2019-01-17 10:41:53 Voices

This is the second piece in a series on Chinese zoos. The first piece in the series can be found here.

The white lion exhibit might be the pride of the northwestern city of Urumqi’s Tianshan Wildlife Park, but curious visitors would do well to temper their expectations: The park’s white lions are really more of a dirty beige, mangier than they are menacing.

So, you may be in for a shock if you turn your eyes to the plaque explaining the nigh-unbelievable story of the lions’ provenance. “Research conducted by scientists has shown that white lions may be an ancient species that once lived in the Arctic and other cold, snow-covered lands,” it reads. Arctic lions would indeed be quite the draw at any zoo. There’s just one problem: There’s no such thing as an “Arctic lion.” The animals are actually the result of naturally occurring genetic mutations in African lions. The nonsense on the plaque appears to have been copied word-for-word from Baidu Baike — China’s version of Wikipedia. I wish I could say Tianshan was the only park to have made this mistake, but I’ve seen the same passage at two other Chinese zoos.

White lions aren’t the only unusually colored animals stalking the country’s wildlife parks: If anything, their numbers and popularity pale in comparison with the country’s captive white tigers. But this craze — which is by no means confined to China — is having a negative impact on resource-strapped zoos. It incentivizes their managers to divert needed funds and attention away from conservation and education — in other words, their mission — and toward gimmicky, crowd-pleasing exhibits.

White lions rest in the shade at Jinan Wildlife Zoo in Jinan, Shandong province, July 10, 2018. Zhang Yong/CNS/VCG

White lions rest in the shade at Jinan Wildlife Zoo in Jinan, Shandong province, July 10, 2018. Zhang Yong/CNS/VCG

According to Chinese mythology, the white tiger is the king of the animal kingdom and the guardian of the west. When a tiger reaches the age of 500, the belief goes, it turns white and transforms into a god — provided the emperor is virtuous and his kingdom prosperous.

On the other hand, according to research conducted by Peking University researcher Luo Shujin, white tigers’ distinctive coloring is caused by genetic mutations that affect the synthesis of yellow and red pigments in their hair and skin. These mutations turn the tigers’ base hair color white, leaving their black stripes intact. It’s an exceedingly rare, recessive trait — but not a genetic defect. In the wild, white tigers can live as long as any other tiger, though perhaps not 500 years.

Just because it’s not a defect doesn’t mean their white fur isn’t something of a curse, however. The difficulty of breeding the tigers means that currently, many of the white tigers in zoos, wildlife parks, and private menageries around the world are descended from one of just a few bloodlines. The most illustrious of these ancestors is a white tiger known as Mohan, or “enchanter.”

In May 1951, the maharaja of Rewa, India, captured Mohan while he was still a cub. Hoping to produce more white tigers for his collection, the maharaja set Mohan up on a series of romantic encounters with another, normally colored tiger. Apparently lacking a background in genetics, the maharaja was doubtless disappointed to find that none of Mohan’s offspring shared his coloring. It was not until Mohan was mated with one of his own daughters that the match finally produced a white cub. Later, Mohan and his various descendants were bred extensively with one another, establishing a lineage of white tigers.

Although a few more white tigers were later found among Eurasia’s Bengal and Siberian tiger populations, allowing breeders to add a little variety to the gene pool, humans wanting to keep producing the variant — and there is certainly demand from zoogoers and collectors worldwide — ultimately need close tiger relatives to breed. This intensive interbreeding has caused no small number of genetic defects and aberrations to emerge. Many captive white tigers have impaired vision, for example, as well as cross-eye and other physical problems.

A white tiger with her cubs at a zoo in Chongqing, Sept. 20, 2016. Wang Chengjie/IC

A white tiger with her cubs at a zoo in Chongqing, Sept. 20, 2016. Wang Chengjie/IC

Despite these issues, the tigers remain a popular attraction. I’ve been to over 60 zoos in China, and almost all of them had at least one white tiger on display. Some even had other, rarer colorations of tigers as well. So-called golden tigers — which have light brown fur and faded, less noticeable striping — and snow tigers, who have the same coloring as golden tigers, but with white instead of brown, are also popular tourist draws. The Chimelong Safari Park, in the southern city of Guangzhou, features white tigers prominently in its marketing materials, and the park itself is home to a number of white lions, white tigers, golden tigers, and snow tigers.

This obsession distorts the original meaning and purpose of zoos and wildlife parks, while siphoning off valuable resources from other species. Despite being artificially manufactured playthings with little conservational or educational value — except, perhaps, with regards to the genetic risks of incest — white tigers frequently occupy the best, most prominent cages and draw the largest crowds. Meanwhile, actually rare and precious species like the South China tiger and Chinese leopards are given less attention than their gimmicky, man-made peers by the public and zoo staff alike.

I’ve also found that those zoos and wildlife parks in less economically developed regions have tended to place more emphasis on their white tigers. Lacking resources, they use the animals as a way to draw crowds. Given public tastes, it’s hard to criticize them — they’re just responding to the market, after all. But that doesn’t make what they’re doing right.

Theoretically, if the risk of genetic disorders was lowered and the welfare of the animals themselves guaranteed; if zoos used them, not as lures, but for educational purposes; and if attention was given equally to all zoo animals, then these breeding practices could be tolerated, and it wouldn’t be a big deal for wildlife parks to exhibit white tigers.

But we’re just not there yet.

Translator: Matt Turner; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell.

(Header image: Three month-old tiger triplets, one of which is a snow tiger (center), lie on the grass at a zoo in Chongqing, Sept. 20, 2016. Wang Chengjie/IC)