In our visual storytelling blog series titled the ‘Nature India Photo Story’, we feature photo stories that explore the realms of science, wildlife, environment, health or anything else that smells of science.
The third in this series is a photo story and commentary by Karl Shuker and Shubhobroto Ghosh, about the rediscovery of a litigon’s image amid the hybridisation debate, which Nature India has previously covered in-depth here.
On 22 May 2017, Karl Shuker, author and cryptozoologist in England, discovered this long lost photograph of an extraordinary hybrid cat. Cubanacan, the progeny of a lion and a tigon [tiger x lioness] was born at the Alipore Zoo in Kolkata, India, on 7 March 1979, and was the only surviving cub of his litter of three.
Alipore Zoo had embarked on a fifteen-year endeavour to hybridise lions and tigers, an effort that created Cubanacan’s tigon mother, Rudrani, and her sister, Rangini, several years earlier. A pioneering scientific success for India, and even the rest of the world, Cubanacan was widely regarded as the first litigon born in the world.
However, a record from 1943 indicates a successful mating between a fifteen-year-old lion-tiger and a lion at the Munich Hellabrunn Zoo to produce a female cub. Even so, Cubanacan’s remarkable genetic makeup sparked interest and enthusiasm in India and around the globe. The fascination with hybrid cats continued as Rudrani produced four more litigons in subsequent years.
There is now evidence that these experiments were led by a scientific quest to determine if hybrids could be fertile, a question that struck at the heart of the notion of biological species. At the time, the very definition of species hinged on reproductive isolation. Though probing at a research question, concerns surfaced about artificially creating animals not found in the wild as freaks for public curiosity. There were also claims of animal cruelty during the process, an allegation that has come to the forefront in the current effort to ban cross breeding of big cats in the United States.
In the midst of this controversy, hybrids still command ample public attention. The 2017 Guinness World Records (formerly the Guinness Book of Records) ranked, Hercules, a liger [lion x tigress] at the Myrtle Beach Safari in South Carolina, the world’s largest big cat.
Cubanacan was also once the world’s largest big cat, who, according to Guinness in 1985, weighed 363 kg (800 pounds), stood 1.32 m (4.4 inches) at the shoulder and measured 3.5 m (11.6 inches) in length. Given the aversion to hybridisation and the subsequent 1985 ban on cross breeding big cats in India, it appears that Cubanacan’s memory was purposely forgotten.
The hybridisation debate in biology is important. So is the current proposal on banning big cat hybridisation in the US, and it is in the light of this controversy that Cubanacan’s photograph is being preserved for posterity as a valuable item in wildlife history, best viewed without value judgement.
Karl Shuker is a British zoologist, cryptozoologist and author. He currently lives in the Midlands, England, where he works as a zoological consultant and writer. He is a Scientific Fellow of the Zoological Society of London and a Fellow of the Royal Entomological Society. His books include Mystery Cats of the World (1989), The Lost Ark: New and Rediscovered Animals of the 20th Century (1993; expanded in 2002 as The New Zoo), and In Search of Prehistoric Survivors (1995), as well as two worldwide bestsellers – Dragons: A Natural History (1995; reissued in 2006), and The Unexplained (1996; reissued in 2002).
Shubhobroto Ghosh is Wildlife Project Manager of World Animal Protection in India and the author of the “Indian Zoo Inquiry,” a white paper review of conditions in Indian Zoos, and the book Dreaming in Calcutta and Channel Islands (2015).
[The authors are grateful to Dr Ashish Kumar Samanta and Ms Piyali Chattopadhyay Sinha, Director and Deputy Director of Alipore Zoo, for allowing the use of the Cubanacan photograph published in the Guinness Book of Records in 1985, in this photo story.]
You can follow this blog series online with the hashtag #NatureIndphotostory. If you have a photo story to tell, email your high resolution entries with a short narration and a couple of lines about yourself to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “Nature India Photo Story”. If it appeals to our editorial team, your photo story might get featured on this blog.