Second Rare Golden Tiger Sighting in India Sparks Concerns About Genetic Issues

Golden tigers are a mutation akin to "spelling mistakes in the DNA." Frequent sightings of these rare creatures indicate a major problem.

Anna Garrison - Author

Feb. 16 2024, Published 10:47 a.m. ET

Rare golden tiger sighted in Kaziranga National Park
Source: Gaurav Ramnarayanan

Animals with genetic mutations, such as a giraffe born without spots, are often viewed as rare, once-in-a-lifetime creatures. However, there are times when these genetic mutations can be detrimental to animals, such as when people deliberately seek them out to hunt them for their rarity.

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In January 2024, a wildlife photographer spotted a rare "golden" tiger in Kaziranga National Park, a wildlife estate in India. Here's why conservationists are concerned about the tiger's unusual appearance.

Rare golden tiger sighted in Kaziranga National Park
Source: Gaurav Ramnarayanan
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A rare "golden" tiger sighting in India worries conservationists about genetic issues.

In late January 2024, tour guide and wildlife photographer Gaurav Ramnarayanan was leading a safari in Kaziranga National Park, a World Heritage Site hosting the world's largest tiger population.

Ramnarayanan told CNN they hadn't been looking for anything unusual when they came across a tiger on the road. "Initially, when I saw him, he looked really white and didn't look like a normal (Bengal) tiger. I've seen enough tigers to realize at the first glance that this one was not regular."

When he went to take a photograph, Ramnarayanan noticed the tiger's "strawberry blonde" stripes. He added, "The tiger decided to come towards us, not with any intention for attack or any intention to harm us, but purely to pass through his path and proceed with marking his territory."

Ramnarayanan was able to take photos of the creature, which he later posted online to awe and amazement. But not everyone was thrilled about the presence of this rare tiger.

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As of 2021, Kaziranga National Park authorities noted four golden tigers in the park, per Earth Journalism. In 2020, wildlife photographer Mayuresh Hendre published images of one golden tiger and a video explaining why golden tigers were a concern.

Hendre said that an increased number of golden tigers could indicate inbreeding which was likely caused by deforestation and the inability to reach other tigers via forest corridors.

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At the same time, the park issued a lengthy statement on X (formerly known as Twitter) emphasizing why the emergence of golden tigers is not something to celebrate. A research officer for Kaziranga National Park, Rabindra Sharma, explained in the statement, "recessive genes are showing up due to inbreeding within a fragmented population."

White tiger laying on a rock in a jungle habitat.
Source: iStock

White tigers are also caused by genetic mutation.

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Professor Uma Ramakrishnan with India’s National Center for Biological Sciences, told CNN that this unusual mutation is like "spelling mistakes in the DNA."

Golden tigers are created via a recessive gene called a "wide band gene," per Zoological Wildlife Foundation, and these creatures tend to be larger due to the effect of the wide band genes on their hair shafts.

Unfortunately, there are an estimated 30 golden tigers in captivity, with four remaining in the wild. Due to this extraordinary rarity of mutation, many conservationists worry that "the only way [the mutation] would show up" is the direct result of inbreeding.

Professor Ramakrishnan also highlighted to CNN that inbreeding can weaken tigers' immune systems and create physical defects such as flatter faces or crossed eyes.

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