Many people may be forgiven for assuming that blue tigers are as plausible as pink elephants, but cryptozoologists think otherwise – and for good reason.
Harry R. Caldwell was a Methodist missionary based in China during the early part of the 20th Century. He was also a keen big game hunter, and during his travels he encountered a truly amazing creature whose existence is still disputed by scientists but whose reality was, for him, an indisputable fact. In spring 1910, Caldwell was in the Futsing region of Fukien (now Fujian) Province in southeastern China when he first heard reports from villagers concerning a particularly ferocious but elusive tiger of extraordinary appearance.
Eschewing the blazing reddish-orange pelage characterising normal tigers, it was said to be a spectacular shade of blue! From then on, whenever he passed through this region, Caldwell spent much of his spare time seeking this incredible beast, but except for a single tantalisingly brief sighting in April of that same year, obtained after using a tethered goat as bait, he did not meet with success – until September 1910, that is.
Learning that the fabled blue tiger had tried to attack a sleeping child in a villager’s hut, Caldwell decided to end its reign of terror once and for all, and, in so doing, prove to science that this fairytale-like beast really had existed. Accompanied by his native cook Da Da, armed with a sturdy rifle, and once again using a tethered goat as bait, Caldwell concealed himself in dense cover and waited for the arrival of his cerulean quarry, aptly nicknamed ‘Bluebeard’.
After a while, Da Da pointed towards what he claimed was an animal, but when Caldwell looked, all that he could see was what seemed to be a man, dressed in a light-blue garment popular among the inhabitants of this region, and crouching as if picking herbs from beside the trail. Whispering “Man”, to Da Da, Caldwell turned his attention back to the goat – but as he later revealed in his book Blue Tiger (1925), that was his first mistake:
“Again the cook tugged at my elbow, saying, “Tiger, surely a tiger,” and I once more looked at the object, this time to see what I thought was a man still upon his knees in the trail. I was about to turn again toward the goat when my cook excitedly said, “Look, look, it is a tiger,” and, turning, saw the great beast lengthen out and move cautiously along the trail a couple of rods and then come to a sitting position near a clump of grass. Now focusing upon what I had altogether overlooked in my previous hurried glances, I saw the huge head of the tiger above the blue which had appeared to me to be the clothes of a man. What I had been looking at was the chest and belly of the beast…The markings of the animal were marvellously beautiful. The ground colour seemed to be a deep shade of maltese, changing into almost deep blue on the under parts. The stripes were well defined, and so far as I was able to make out similar to those on a tiger of the regular type.”
At such close range, Caldwell was readily able to shoot Bluebeard, but fate decreed otherwise. As his finger was about to tighten upon the trigger, Caldwell noticed that the tiger was gazing in an interested manner at something below, in the intervening ravine – and when he looked down to see what it was, Caldwell was greatly alarmed to spy two boys, gathering bundles of grass and dry ferns. He knew that if he shot Bluebeard, the tiger’s body would fall directly into the ravine, and, if it were still alive, a wounded tiger would pose a terrible threat to the boys. Equally, his shot may go awry and once again endanger them.
Consequently, Caldwell decided to draw the tiger’s attention away from the ravine by standing up, which he did. For a full half hour, hunter and tiger stared at one another, Bluebeard crouching motionless behind a tussock of grass, until Caldwell sought to end this impasse by slipping behind the great cat, in order to stalk it from the flank. That was his second mistake, because this manoeuvre meant losing sight of Bluebeard for a short period.
And sure enough, when Caldwell reached his new position, he discovered to his profound disappointment that in those few moments the blue tiger had disappeared, leaving only its tracks to vouch for its erstwhile presence. Like a feline leprechaun, Bluebeard had spotted its opportunity to vanish, and had taken full advantage of it. Caldwell never saw the blue tiger again.
Nevertheless, it was not entirely intangible. During some of Caldwell’s earlier unsuccessful searches, he had been accompanied by his son, John C. Caldwell, who, in his own book, Our Friends The Tigers (1954), recalled: “As I grew older I joined the hunts, on several occasions seeing the beautiful maltese hairs of the animal along the mountain trails”. Unfortunately, he did not note whether any of these scientifically-valuable hairs were collected and preserved.
In addition, Dr Ingrid Weigel’s tiger account in Volume 12 of Grzimek’s Animal Life Encyclopedia (1975) contains the following tantalisingly-brief mention: “A blue-gray tiger with black stripes was once sighted in Lung-tao, China”. This certainly sounds like Bluebeard, but I have been unable to trace Lung-tao in any Chinese atlas. However, a colleague fluent in Chinese has offered the following two suggestions, on the basis that Lung-tao is a misprint or mistranslation.
Lung-tao may be one and the same as Lungyao – a town in southwest Hopeh Province that was called Lungping until 1949. In the more recent change of convention for spelling Chinese names (in which a phonetic version is now utilised), Lungping would now be spelt Longping. Alternatively, taking into account Chinese pronunciation together with the new phonetic convention for spelling Chinese names, Lung-tao could have been a version of spelling for the locality now spelt Longdu, situated in China’s Jiangsu Sheng Province.
More recently, in 2001, an American correspondent, Bill McKee, informed me that while serving with the US army in Korea during the Korean War, his father, Lt Col. James McKee, claimed to have seen a blue tiger in the mountains one morning in December 1952, and that the locals were also aware of it. His father was stationed in central Korea, near what is now the Demilitarised Zone, and his sighting occurred about a mile to the east of the Mong Don Ni Valley.
Regardless of their zoogeography, however, could blue tigers truly exist? Sceptics have suggested that perhaps blue tigers are simply normal tigers that have rolled in some sort of blue dye, staining their coats. Yet if this were the case, surely other animals in the area would have done the same, not just tigers, but there are no such reports. Equally, if this were indeed true, why were their stripes still clearly visible, rather than being hidden by the dye?
Conversely, feline genetics offers viable support for the likelihood of blue tigers. Maltese domestic cats exhibit a smoky blue-grey pelage, created by two mutant alleles (gene forms) known respectively as non-agouti and dilute, whose combined effect is termed blue dilution. Moreover, skins of blue specimens of certain wild cat species, such as the Canadian lynx and the bobcat, which also apparently possess this genetic combination, have already been obtained – so why could there not be a tiger counterpart? Meanwhile, its normal, undiluted black stripes could conceivably be the result of independent polygenic (multi-gene) activity upon the above-noted colour-diluting gene forms.
Whatever the genetic explanation, however, surely it is high time that the blue tigers of Fujian emerged from the realms of reverie into reality. For more information concerning blue tigers and other exotic feline cryptids, be sure to check out my latest book, Mystery Cats of the World Revisited (Anomalist Books: San Antonio, 2020).