Among the many animals of our planet, perhaps some of the most elegant revered and indeed feared creatures are the big cats. Powerful, graceful, and beautiful, they have inspired and terrorized mankind since time unremembered. As awe inspiring as they are, most of the time when one sees a tiger or a lion, they have a pretty good idea of what to expect. A tiger is orange with black stripes, perhaps even white with black stripes, and a lion is a yellowish brown with a mane if it’s a male. This typically seems straightforward enough. Yet what if you were to come across a blue tiger or a black or even a green or red lion? Does the idea seem ridiculous? Well, if various reports spanning from at least the 18th century all the way up into the present are to be believed, this scenario could indeed happen, and these anomalously colored big cats may just possibly be out there. Let’s take a look at the weird, rainbow colored world of cryptically colored big cats.
One of the more fascinating, no doubt beautiful, and at first seemingly absurd, impossible cryptic color variations for a tiger is that of the blue tiger, also known as the Maltese Tiger, which is an alleged striking blue color morph of tiger mainly reported in from the Fujian Province of China and almost exclusively seen in the critically endangered South China tiger subspecies (Panthera tigris amoyensis). The blue tiger has also allegedly been sighted in Korea and in Burma as well.
The sighting that really brought the blue tiger out into the open was made in 1910 by the American missionary and big game hunter Harry Caldwell, and his hunting companion Roy Chapman Andrews, while hunting outside Fuzhou, in China’s Fujian province. Caldwell was an experienced big cat hunter, who while watching a tethered goat meant to lure out tigers spotted something something strange behind some bushes; a flash of a blue, moving object. The hunter had heard reports of blue tigers in the region before, but had chalked them up to mere local superstition or folklore, and thus he first dismissed the sighting as nothing more than a person dressed in blue, but then noticed the head of a tiger looming above what he had first taken to be merely blue clothing. He lined up the tiger in his sights, but two children playing nearby, which it became apparent the tiger was intently focusing on, caused him to refrain from firing. As Caldwell attempted to get into a new position from which to fire, the mysterious tiger suddenly vanished into the dense underbrush, but the sight would stay with him. At the time, Caldwell described the cat as having a smokey grayish blue color which became more pronounced on the undersides, and that even the stripes were of a blue coloration. His hunting companion, Chapman, would later cite Caldwell in his 1925 Camps & Trails in China:
The markings of the beast are strikingly beautiful. The ground colour is of a delicate shade of Maltese, changing into light gray-blue on the underparts. The stripes are well defined and like those of the ordinary yellow tiger.
Caldwell would later give the strangely colored tiger he had seen the nickname Bluebeard, and tracking it down became somewhat of an obsession. He brought along his own son, John C. Caldwell, on numerous hunts, and the two scoured the wilderness in search of the blue tiger, during which time it was reported that a blue tiger had attacked a local child. In fact, the blue tiger was notorious in the area, where locals called it the “Blue Devil.” Nevertheless, the beast remained elusive to Caldwell, despite his best efforts roaming and tracking through the jungles to find it. A reward was offered for the cryptid cat and other hunters headed out to find it as well, but Bluebeard managed to evade all of them. Although Caldwell never did manage to get another glimpse of the elusive creature, Caldwell’s son would later write in the 1954 book Our Friends the Tiger that during their many expeditions in search of the blue tiger they had come across many instances of bluish colored tiger hairs along remote jungle trails. Harry Caldwell would go on to extensively chronicle his hunt for the blue tiger in his 1924 book Blue Tiger. The incident is also well-documented and covered in great detail by cryptozoologist Karl Shuker in his book, Mystery Cats of the World.
Another sighting of the elusive and mysterious blue tiger was conveyed to cryptozoologist Karl Shuker and details the account of Bill McKee, who informed Shuker that his father, Col. James McKee, had seen a blue tiger stalking the mountains of Korea during the Korean War in December of 1952. McKee claimed that he had seen the tiger approximately a mile to the east of the Mong Don Ni Valley, near the Demilitarized Zone.
If it is indeed real, then what could the blue tiger be? Rather than a new species of tiger, it would most likely be a genetic mutation rather than a new species. Tigers display a range of aberrant coloration such as white tigers, which are not true albinos due to their black stripes obviously, tigers that are nearly pure white with almost imperceptible stripes, and even golden tigers with deep gold stripes on a tawny background. Genetically, the feline world is not above throwing out blue, or Maltese colored specimens and we can see this in the domestic cats the Russian Blue, the Maltese, and the British blue, and it is even recorded with some wild cats such as bobcats and lynxes. Are there blue tigers wandering the wilderness as well? There have been no such specimens ever brought forward or confirmed, but the accounts remain and do make one wonder.
In addition to blue tigers, there have also long been reported the existence of black tigers as well. Cryptozoologist Karl Shuker has done a great amount of research on the phenomenon of black tigers, tracing perhaps the first evidence of their existence to a watercolor painting done by the 18th century artist James Forbes, who was at the time in India with the British East India Company in Kerala. The painting was allegedly made in 1772 from a dead black tiger which had been shot by locals in the region, and was very detailed in its depiction of the animal. Although the painting itself seems to have been lost to time, Forbes’ own description of it remains in a hand-written letter and describes it thus:
I have also the opportunity of adding the portrait of an extraordinary Tyger [sic], shot a few months ago by the Nairs in this neighbourhood, and presented to the chief as a great curiosity. It was entirely black yet striped in the manner of the Royal-Tyger, with shades of a still darker hue, like the richest black, glossed with purple. My pencil is very deficient in displaying these mingled tints; nor do I know how to describe them better than by the difference you would observe in a black cloth variegated with shades of rich velvet.
Since then, there have been various reports of black tiger sightings. A report detailed in the Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society (JBNHS) tells of a sighting made in September, 1885, by a hunter named by Colonel S. Capper in the Cardoman Hills of southern India. According to the report, Capper spied the animal lounging about on a rock through his rifle’s scope, but it soon disappeared into the underbrush in a flash. When Capper and his hunting companion, C.J. Maltby, went to investigate where the strange tiger had been, they found what they reported to be the clear and unmistakable pug-marks of a tiger. The experienced hunter insisted it was a black tiger he had seen, as well as a tiger’s pug marks, and not a black leopard, which are also found in the area.
The JBNHS also gave the account of an A. T. Hauxwell, who was the Conservator of Forests at Maymyo, Burma and in 1914 reported that his son had shot and wounded a black tiger. Hauwwell’s son had reportedly thought it was a large black pig at first, but as he followed the wounded animal could hear the growling of a big cat and additionally came across the large pug marks of what appeared to be a tiger. Although the son and some locals tracked the wounded animal, they were unable to locate it and its body was never found. A 1983 report called Tigers in China also described several sightings of black tigers in the Dongning area of China in the 1950s. Another report comes from a 1964 Country Life article by Charles Stonor, who reported that the Mishmi tribespeople of the Assam Himalayas were well acquainted with black tigers living in the area, which they called “bear tigers” and insisted were not black leopards, as faint stripes in the black coat could be vaguely discerned in bright sunlight. A more recent report detailed by Karl Shuker tells of a truly gigantic black tiger allegedly measuring 20 to 24 feet in length, which was supposedly terrorizing a village in India and killing their cattle from between 1952 all the way up until1967. When authorities investigated, they reportedly found pug marks that were much larger than usual. The mystery tiger was never captured or killed.
More recent sightings of black tigers exist as well. In the winter of 1976 not one, but two black tigers were seen in bright daylight by Orissa Forest Service officials on a road near Matughar meadow, and in 1991 a black cub was witnessed with two normal colored adults at Devasthali. Black tigers were regularly spotted in the park area of Pedagarh, India, in 1993 as well. In 1996 there were several sightings of black tigers around India, including some that were described as being a deep black with thin yellow stripes. The June 4, 2007 edition of The Hindu reported that images captured by camera-traps during a census survey on the tiger population of Similipal National Park in Orissa’s Mayurbhanj district seemed to show one adult female black tiger and two black cubs. Another black tiger was photographed on camera-traps used for a census survey in the very same park again in March, 2012. Interestingly, Chief Wildlife Warden Suresh Mohanty said in the article that the existence of black tigers in Similipal National Park was "usual." Unfortunately, despite the insistence by officials that the images show black tigers, they are just not good enough to be conclusive, and many have remained skeptical, saying they show black leopards rather than tigers.
Even more exciting than sightings of alleged black tigers are the numerous reports of such animals being killed or even captured alive. One famous account reported in the JBNHS is that of the naturalist C.T. Buckland, who in March of 1846 reported that a black tiger had been shot with a poisoned arrow in Bangladesh (then known as the Chittagong Hills) after it had terrorized the locals by killing their cattle and even one person. The badly decayed body of the mystery tiger was later discovered lying by the side of a road and Buckland went to go see it for himself. Upon inspecting the carcass, Buckland would describe it thus:
It was a full-sized tiger, and the skin was black, or very dark-brown, so that the stripes showed rather a darker black in the sunlight, just as the spots are visible on the skin of a black leopard ... by the time that we arrived the carcase was swollen, the flies were buzzing about it, and decomposition had set in so that those of our party who knew best, decided that the skin could not be saved.... Captain Swatman, who was in charge of the Government elephant kheddas, and Captain Hore (afterwards Lord Ruthven), of the 25th N.I., were well-known sportsmen, and had each of them killed many tigers. No doubt was expressed about the animal being a black tiger.
It is unfortunate that in this case the carcass had decomposed to the point that the animal could not be skinned, depriving us of any physical evidence of the creature. There have been other alleged black tigers that have been killed as well. One dead black tiger was allegedly found in the Lushai Hills, south of Assam state in the north-east region of India in 1928, but its skin was also too badly decomposed to be of much use. A Captain Guy Dollman of the British Natural History Museum reported in the 14 October 1936 edition of The Times that in 1915 another black tiger had been shot and killed by natives, also in the Assam area, and yet another had been shot and killed in the Central Provinces. Frustratingly, it seems that the carcasses and skins of these animals could not be located for investigation, but Dollman insisted that the animals in question had been tigers and not leopards. In response to this report, a W.H. Carter wrote in The Times of 16 October 1936:
I was much interested in Captain Guy Dollman’s letter on black tigers in The Times of October 14, having been resident in the neighbourhood mentioned by him for years. In one of the official district Gazetteers of Bengal (Khulna or Backerganj) there is mentioned a local variety of tiger which had lost its stripes as camouflage in the open sandy tracts of Sundarbans. The uniform colour scheme adopted was however, brown and not black, but perhaps his cousin in the hinterland found black more suited to his background. The author of the Gazetteer in question is, I believe, dead.
While the lack of any physical evidence in these cases is unfortunate, there are other instances where intact black tiger hides have been reportedly found. In the 9 January 1937 edition of The Field, there was a letter from a Dunbar Brander, who wrote that while visiting the deputy commissioner's bungalow at Betul, Central Provinces along with Calcutta barrister J.A. Clough, they had seen something quite unusual. There on the wall was a tiger skin with a dark brown, nearly black background color. When asked about it, the deputy commissioner claimed that another similarly colored tiger had also been seen in the same area where that one had been shot. Interestingly, the mention of a brown color mirrors the account given by W.H. Carter in his letter to The Times. Other skins have turned up in more recent times. In 1992 the skin of a black tiger was seized by officials from a poacher in south Delhi, India, and put on display at the National Museum of Natural History, New Delhi, although it remains unclear of just what sort of analysis was done on it. A year later, near the village of Podagad in Orissa, India, a boy allegedly shot a female black tiger with a bow and arrow, and examination of the skin showed that it was black with white stripes on the abdomen.
Live black tigers have on occasion been captured and exhibited as well. In the late 18th century, a black tiger from the East Indies was supposedly exhibited at the Tower of London menagerie, which is now London Zoo. Another live black tiger was displayed at Kendrick's collection of exotic animals near St James's Church, Piccadilly in 1844. Apparently the tiger in this case had originally been intended as a present for Napolean from the King of Java.
The interesting thing about black tigers, other than the fact that they look metal as hell, is that although some tropical species of big cat such as the jaguar or leopard and others can display melanistim, or an all-black color phase, there has never been any official proof of a melanistic tiger. Not a single specimen or skin of a melanistic tiger has even been significantly scientifically analyzed and documented, which has led many to assume such tigers do not exist. There are thus numerous alternative skeptical theories behind reports of black tigers. The most common is that accounts of black tigers are simply misidentifications of black leopards. This has indeed happened on occasion, with highly publicized bodies of “black tigers” turning out to be black leopards upon inspection. This theory could be true in some cases, but many of the black tiger reports have been made under good conditions by experienced hunters, guides, or officials, who know the difference between a tiger and a leopard. Other ideas are that the black tigers are merely normal colored tigers which have been covered with some substance such as mud, the ash of forest fires, or even the blood of their prey, making them appear black but this does not explain the alleged black tiger skins which were examined and would have likely shown to be such. There are even the ideas that black tiger sightings are the result of optical illusions or even the misidentification of black bears or wild boars. Are black tigers real? Until more evidence comes forward there is no way to know for sure.
Black tigers are not the only big cats that come in a color they are not typically supposed to, as there are allegedly black lions as well. Cryptozoologist Karl Shuker reported that a George Adamson wrote in his 1986 book My Pride and Joy that a black lion had been seen in Tanzania, and cryptozoologist Loren Coleman was informed by author C.A.W. Guggisberg that black lion cubs had been reported from time to time in Tanzania as well. Other sightings have been uncovered by Shuker as well. June Kay gave an account in her book Okavango of seeing a black lion at very close range, and in 1940 a game warden allegedly spotted an entire pride of black lions in Kruger National Park.
The problem with the idea of black lions is that, as with tigers, there has never been a confirmed specimen exhibiting melanism, so we are left with the same sorts of theories we have with cases of black tigers. It is probably not totally far-fetched that a black lion or tiger could feasibly exist, but until there is proof brought forward we won’t know for sure. One color that no cat at all is known to come in is green. Yet amazingly there has been at least one report of a green lion. In Shuker’s book Mystery Cats of the World, there is a report mentioned of a prospector who saw a green lion in Uganda. What would be going on with that? Was it a lion covered in algae or slime, or was the prospector just seeing things? Whatever the case may be, a green lion is certainly something you don’t see every day. Neither is a red lion, yet red furred lions have been reported from Peru’s Yanachaga National Park, where they are sometimes called “jungle lions.” Note that Peru is not a place where one would typically expect to find lions in the first place, let alone red ones.
It would appear that perhaps big cats come in a rainbow of colors that we never even thought possible. All of these accounts leave us with questions. Are these mysterious big cats real? If not, then what are people seeing? If so, how did these strangely colored cats come about? Is there anything to these stories and eyewitness reports at all? It seems that accounts such as these are at least worth considering, and there is the possibility that further investigation could lead us to a new understanding of our planet’s majestic big cats. If you would like to read more about cryptically colored big cats, a very good source is Karl Shuker’s books Mystery Cats of the World (1989) and Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery (2012), as well as Cryptozoology (1986) by Bernard Heuvelmans.