White Tiger: When Mutation becomes Exhibit!

Main entrance of the Mukundpur White Tiger Safari and Zoo in Madhya Pradesh
Main entrance of the Mukundpur White Tiger Safari and Zoo in Madhya Pradesh

This might be a very rare happening in the history of wildlife conservation. A gene mutation has become something exotic and an aberration is been celebrated. Perhaps, beauty of a white tiger has lot to do with that. So fascinating that we have gone very far in actually preserving and breeding that mutation. That has brought us to a point where we have world’s only white tiger safari at Mukundpur in Satna district of Madhya Pradesh. The safari was thrown open for public this Sunday. I was there at that occasion.

White Tiger Raghu aged two and half years at Mukundpur zoo.
White Tiger Raghu aged two and half years at Mukundpur zoo.

Why Mukundpur? White tigers have association with this region. Although Mukundpur is in Satna district, it borders adjoining Rewa district. Erstwhile royal family of Rewa has been the corner stone of conservation of white tigers. Actually, fact is that there has been no sighting of white tigers in the wild anywhere else in the world, besides this region. And, even in this region there had been only two documented instances of white tiger sighting in the wild- firstly, more than hundred years ago in December 1915, when prince Gulab Singh of Rewa state captured a white tiger from the jungles of Sohagpur in Shahdol district which now is part of Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve and National Park. As per Journal of Bombay Natural History that tiger died in 1920 after spending five years behind cages in the royal palace.

A stuffed white tigress in Rewa palace.
A stuffed white tigress in Rewa palace.

The second instance of sighting a white tiger in wild is of May, 1951 when Rewa King Martand Singh (last Maharaja of the state who was a MP from Rewa on three occasions, twice as Independent and lastly representing Congress) captured alive a white tiger cub, while on a hunting spree in jungles of Seedhi district of Madhya Pradesh, which now falls under Sanjay Gandhi National Park. That was perhaps the most significant moment in the history of white tigers in world. The cub somehow managed to escape the firing line of the royal hunters and was later on caught alive while his mother and two of his siblings were hunted down. The white cub somehow caught the imagination of Maharaja Martand Singh, who brought the cub to the place and put it into a cage.

Mohan, who was cremated with full royal honours after his death in 1969, but his head was stuffed and preserved for generations to see
Mohan, who was cremated with full royal honours after his death in 1969, but his head was stuffed and preserved for generations to see

Named Mohan later on, this white tiger lived whole his life in the cage in the royal palace at Govindgarh near Rewa. He died in 1969 and his life span of 18 years was good enough to become father, grand father or great grand father of all the white tigers in the world at present. Numbering more than hundred, all these white tigers are kept in cages or enclosures in different zoos around the world. There was a large scale captive breeding of white tigers—initially in Govindgarh palace under Rewa state and later on at Delhi zoological garden. Cubs and Tigers with this gene mutation were gifted to zoos, parks and celebrities around the world. Slowly, breeding process at Govindgarh slowed down and with passing away of a white tiger ‘Viraat’ at Govindgarh in July 1976, white tigers vanished from their original habitat.

Now, after forty years, white tigers have been brought to the region, but as exhibits in a newly constructed zoo. About 20 kms from Rewa city, Mukundpur area falls under Maand Reserve area. A 75 hectare area has been earmarked for the zoo and 25 hectare for an exclusive world’s only white tiger safari. As of now, there is only one white tigress ‘Vindhya’ in the safari which can be visited only through a safari bus. The adjoining zoo has a white tiger Raghu and a white tigress Radha. There are two other normal Royal Bengal Tigers and a couple of bears. Zoo is awaiting few other animals. There are also plans to develop a breeding and wildlife rescue centre nearby.

White Tiger in Mukundpur zoo.
White Tiger in Mukundpur zoo.

White tigers are normal Indian tigers a few of whom in this region developed a gene mutation generations back. Mutation is an aberration—a permanent alteration in the DNA sequence resulting into a feature, which is different from the normal ones. They may or they may not pass this mutation to their offsprings, but there is always a probability. For example, Mohan fathered many normal tiger cubs as well. Due to this mutation, these tigers loose their traditional yellow colour and turn white. Their eyes also turn blue. All other features, habits and capabilities remain the same. The colour of the skin and eyes, make these white tigers more fascinating for the viewers.

Another of Mohan's offspring stuffed and showcased at Rewa palace.
Another of Mohan’s offspring stuffed and showcased at Rewa palace.

So, for locals in Rewa, loyalties of the royals and politicians in the state this is a happy moment as it has been an election issue to bring back the white tigers to the region they allegedly belong to. Hence the opening ceremony of the zoo seemed more like an election rally evident from the speeches of political leaders amidst gathering of more than 25 thousand people. But not everyone is happy. Breeding of white tigers has always been a hotly debated issue. Experts have been critical of it saying that there is no specific conservation value of this mutation. In long term it might be harmful for the species. World over, breeding of white tigers was stopped a decade ago.

Experts say that colour of skin compromises with camouflaging abilities of white tiger.
Experts say that colour of skin compromises with camouflaging abilities of white tiger.

In a paper World association of Zoos and Aquariums have voiced its concern on breeding practices to increase the physical expression of rare traits through intentional breeding. For example intentional breeding to achieve rare colour-morphs such as white tigers, deer and alligators has been linked with various abnormal, debilitating and occasionally lethal conditions. Better, we keep our efforts for actual and needed conservation efforts for the tigers in general.

White tigress Radha in a fearsome mood in her cage at Mukundpur zoo.
White tigress Radha in a fearsome mood in her cage at Mukundpur zoo.

Where: Mukundpur is in Satna district of Madhya Pradesh. It is 20 kms from Rewa city. Rewa is connected through train services via Bhopal and Varanasi. Varanasi and Khajuraho are the two nearest airports. Roads in the region are bit tricky, so keep margin for additional time taken to travel through roads. Rewa has a few descent hotels to stay. You may need to hire a vehicle to carry you to zoo and safari from the Rewa city. Infrastructure around the Mukundpur zoo and safari is yet to spring up.

Rewa palace, which now houses a museum and many of stuffed white tigers.
Rewa palace, which now houses a museum and many of stuffed white tigers.
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