The first recorded white tigers
The first white tiger to be captured was not, as is often claimed, the famed Mohan. There were several captures and a large number of sightings (and shootings) prior to this. For instance, in one of the earliest records a white tiger was displayed at Exeter Change in 1820.
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Shootings were common between 1892 and 1922 in places like Orissa, Upper Assam, Bilaspur, Cooch Behar and Poona. Between the 1920s and 1930s fifteen white tigers were killed in the region of Bihar alone. Some of these trophies were placed on display in the Calcutta Museum. (Incidentally, this is the ninth oldest regular museum in the world).
In December 1915, still a full thirty-six years prior to the capture of Mohan, Maharajah Gulab Singh of Rewa caught a white cub. At the time of capture it was approximately two-years-old and lived in captivity at the Maharajah’s summer palace for another five years. The tiger was then stuffed and sent as a gift to King George V as a sign of India’s loyalty to the crown. To this day white tigers are still kept at the Maharajah’s summer palace which is located at Govindgarh.
The most famous white tiger of all: Mohan
In May 1951, Maharajah Shri Martand Singh was hunting in the jungles of Bandhavgarh, (central India). On the 25th a report came in that a tigress had been sighted with four cubs, one of which was white.
The next day a search was carried out designed to find the tigress. This involved the beating of drums and cans, firing shots, trumpet blasts and shouting.
It is recorded that the tigress slowly approached the hide where the Maharajah was seated with his guests. There was little apparent concern from her and she probably wasn’t aware of the threat.
The tigress was shot and this was followed by two of her four cubs. More by luck than planning the white cub escaped. Rules of the time allowed the shooting of a tigress with cubs and this was very common. Back at base camp the kills were logged, a fairly routine job.
The next morning no trace of the white cub could be found, but eventually pug marks were sighted at a kill made by the mother. Hunger had bought the cub back and it had hidden in a rock crevice.
The above image is an often shown, but very fanciful depiction of the cub’s first capture. As will be seen, the only attempt to use a net was a few days later and this failed badly.
What actually happened was less impressive. A local carpenter made a drop-gate cage which was placed at the exit to the crevice. Knowing the cub must be getting thirsty, water was used to tempt the cub into the cage. Several hours later the plan worked and the youngster was captured. He was returned to the Maharajah’s 150-roomed palace and placed in a large open courtyard.
On the 30th May, only three days after its capture, the white cub escaped and a long hunt was organised to try and recover it. There were several violent confrontations during which time an attempt to net the cub resulted in a mauling. When the cub again attempted to attack he was clubbed hard on the head. The thump knocked him unconscious and gave the men the chance to tie his legs and cage him.
The white cub was reintroduced to a repaired courtyard where he was to live for the remainder of his life.
This tiger was the famed Mohan.
The first captive-bred white tigers
In adulthood, Mohan was bred to a wild-caught orange tigress named Begum, but her three litters contained only cubs of normal colouration (we now know that the combination probably did not have the genetic code to produce white tigers). She was then sold to the Ahmedabad Zoo and the Maharajah looked for an alternative partnership which might bring the desired white cubs.
Mohan was then bred to Radha, one of his daughters from the second litter, and this resulted in four white cubs: Raja, Rani, Sukeshi and Mohini. Subsequently, using this method, white specimens were able to be produced at the rate of one for every three orange tigers.
Breeding father to daughter set in place a future for the white tiger which was to involve numerous cases of inbreeding, and which still continues even to this very day.
Raja and Rani
Two of the cubs, Raja and Rani were gifted to the National Zoological Gardens in New Delhi where they became the zoo’s most famed exhibit.
The partnership was bred and Rani eventually went on to produce 20 cubs, all of which were white. The only other captive tigress to equal this number was Chandani of Alipore Zoological Gardens in Calcutta.
Rani and Raja’s mother (Radha) also produced a large number of cubs, giving birth to 13 whites and 9 orange tigers. She died on the 2nd May 1974 and is still considered the First Lady of white tigers.
The great Mohan died aged 19 years and 7 months. Plans had been made for a large celebration of his 20th birthday, but instead he was laid to rest in a palace courtyard with full Hindu rites and staff observing official mourning.
The last known wild white tigers
Mohan was the last recorded capture of a white tiger and the last wild white to be known was shot at Bihar in 1958.
In the past century, there have only been a dozen or so reports of white tigers being seen in the wilds of India, and some of these may be considered inaccurate. It is extremely unlikely any wild whites still exist due to the rare genetic combination required to produce them and the overall rarity of all tigers.
On top of this, any white cub starts at an enormous disadvantage in that it does not have natural camouflage and would attract predators. Any white tiger which did survive to adulthood would experience great difficulty hunting.
White tigers are considered extinct in the wild.
On the 29th August 1979 white tiger Seema was sent to Kanpur Zoo as a potential mate for normal coloured Badal (from the 4th generation of Mohan-Begum mates). This project did not succeed and the aim then became to mate Seema with either Sheru or Titu, both captured notorious man-eaters from the Corbett National Park area. Eventually the mating with Sheru was successful.
Seema delivered a litter of three cubs: Sajeev, Uttam and Johar, out of which one, Johar, was white.
This was considered surprising because, as per the commonly accepted hereditary principles of Mendelian genetics, white offspring should not have been produced if the father, in this case Sheru, was normally-coloured homozygous.
This event has given rise to a school of thought that there could perhaps be some white gene pool in the habitat of Corbett Park from where Sheru was captured.