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A golden tiger, also called a golden tabby tiger, is a tiger that is distinguished by its unusual golden-red coloring. The animal is extraordinarily rare, with global estimates from the World Wildlife Fund hovering around 30 in the year 2011. All known golden tigers live in captivity, usually in wildlife refuges or parks. Zoos rarely house them, in part because of how scarce they are.
The golden tiger’s coat is a blend of white, cream, and pale orange fur. Its stripes are typically rust-colored. Some wildlife specialists refer to the golden tiger as the “strawberry tiger,” as the color of its fur is often what many would call strawberry blond. They are indigenous to Southeast Asia, particularly India, but have not been known to exist in the wild since the early 20th century.
Golden tigers are not a separate species of tiger. Their coloring is due to genetic mutation, the same as the white tiger. White tigers are also rare, and also exist almost exclusively in captivity. There are many more white tigers than there are golden tabby tigers, however.
Most golden tigers draw their lineage from the Bengal breed of tiger most common on the Indian subcontinent. The tigers usually also have some lineage that traces back to the Armur tigers native to Russia, China, and Siberia. Many zoologists believe that the unique coloring on the golden tiger is a direct result of this mixed lineage.
The differences between a golden tiger and either a Bengal or Armur tiger are immediately apparent. Both the Bengal and the Armur types of tiger are bright orange in color with vibrant black stripes and black facial markings. A golden tiger, on the other hand, is much softer in color, with stripes of brownish-red. Its face is usually a mix of white and pale orange.
When they roamed in the wild, golden tigers were often believed to carry magical or mystical qualities. They were the subject of legend and lore throughout much of Asia, but most notably in India and China. These tigers were always rare to begin with, but decreased rapidly in population in large part because of hunting and poaching. Pelts from a golden tiger fetched much higher prices than those of ordinary black and orange tigers, and were prized by emperors and rajahs.
The distribution of tigers in zoos and wildlife parks takes into account an animal’s rarity and likelihood of reproductive success. Nearly all golden tabbies are kept away from the public eye in secluded wildlife centers. The hope is that someday they will regenerate enough to be more widely distributed or, perhaps, even re-released into the wild.
Breeding is often a challenge, however, in part because of the color pattern’s genetic basis. Mating two golden tabbies does not guarantee golden colored offspring. The chances are better with known gene carriers, but the fact remains that the vast majority of tigers born carry the dominant coloring.