Bengaluru-based Nilanjan Ray had been working in corporate technology marketing for many years when he decided to take a break and travel a little. Last week, he was driving through a road in a forest reserve in the Nilgiris with a guide, when he came upon a curious sight.
It was certainly not the first time that Nilanjan had seen a tiger, but in his travel across several sanctuaries and reserves in north and central India, he hadn't seen a tiger so pale, though not exactly white. The hallmark orange colour of the Bengal tiger was missing from its coat, but the fur on his face and body were clearly tinged with it.
When the tiger realised that there was a vehicle approaching, it scampered out of the way onto an elevated land and hid amidst the vegetation. Nilanjan holds a keen interest in wildlife photography so they decided to wait for a while in order to get a photograph.
"The tiger was certainly not scared and didn't seem to be trying to threaten us. In fact, it peeked at us at least twice, and regarded us with curiosity more than anything," Nilanjan told TNM.
Having captured the photograph, they drove on. Nilanjan said that he informed the authorities of the reserve who said that would keep track of the tiger. The officials also told him that the tiger looked like it was a sub-adult.
Nilanjan then spoke to some zoologists and experts at Sanctuary Asia, a magazine on wildlife and conservation. He also consulted Belinda Wright, well known tiger conservationist and founder, Wildlife Protection Society of India.
"Belinda told me that this tiger is not the albino white tiger we see in zoos. Those haven't been seen in the wild for at least 50 years, and are mostly inbred. The one I saw at the Nilgiris was probably a result of colour morphism, which happens due to genetic variation," Nilanjan said.
Belinda also told Nilanjan that while she had spotted a similar pale tiger in Ramthambore, Rajasthan, in the 1980s, the one in Nilgiris was much paler than that one as well.
Dr Parvish Pandya, another zoology expert Nilanjan consulted, told TNM that this tiger was rare, but not a new find per se. The most accurate way to describe the unique coat this tiger has is through a recombination of genes. Dr Pandya explains:
"This is a result of random mating between tigers. There are several genes which control pigmentation and concentration of melanin in one's body. It is possible that this tiger's parents had those varied genes but had a normal coat. In this one the genes expressed themselves probably because both the parents had it and passed it on to this offspring when they mated."
Dr Pandya believes that the tiger needs to be remotely monitored to ascertain if the tiger will face problems socialising with other tigers due to its unique appearance.
Nilanjan said the reserve authorities assured that they knew the tiger's location and were monitoring it appropriately. The whereabouts of the tiger would not be revealed so as to avoid unwanted attention from tourists as well as the risk of poachers.