Have you ever seen a liger or interacted with this giant cat? Unfortunately, we're here to advise you to reconsider. Even though many facilities and websites promote the virtues, “conservation” importance, and majestic beauty of ligers, there is a sinister side to the existence of this spotty hybrid.
What is a liger?
Ligers are a hybrid between a male lion (Panthera leo) and a female tiger (Panthera tigris) and are the largest big cat hybrid. Despite their size, they’re often mistaken for a tiger for although they have lots of spots, they also have diffused stripes . But the majestic look of the liger hides many secrets. And the main one is that it is not a natural creature but a man-made one.
Tigers and lions live on different continents (apart from the Gir Forest lions in India), and therefore never meet in the wild. Even if they did, it’s unlikely that they would mate to produce offspring. In fact, when there are offspring, male ligers are sterile, whereas only female ligers can produce cubs .
Health and welfare issues
Cross-breeding big cats can result in severe adverse health effects, including neurological defects, high neonatal mortality, sterility, cancer, arthritis, genetic abnormalities, organ failure, behavioural problems due to conflicting instincts, and gigantism and unsustainable growth .
The ecological reasoning behind the gigantism in ligers boils down to the difference in paternal/maternal needs between the lion and the tiger. Male lions want their offspring to survive, thus the paternal genes promote a larger size to ensure the offspring can out-compete other siblings or cubs that may be fathered by other males, whereas lionesses want higher quality and survivability, thus a lionesses’ maternal genes inhibit foetal growth. However, with female lionesses’ maternal genes out of the equation, the mechanism to minimise the growth of their foetuses is absent, thus ligers are predisposed to gigantism .
Thailand has a liger problem
Bearing these health and welfare issues in mind, it is obvious why it would be concerning for the researchers at For Tigers to observe an increase in liger numbers between 2019 and 2022. Back in 2019, only 6 ligers were observed across four facilities. Earlier this year, our researchers witnessed 1 liger at Huahin Safari World & Adventure Park and a devastating 6 at the newly opened Sriayutthaya Lion Park. Already, that’s more ligers in just two facilities, one of which is brand new!
This frustrating increase of ligers in Thailand may boil down to a potential loophole where facilities are not required to have a zoo licence for ligers as African lions are not protected under the Thai Wild Animal Reservation and Protecting Act (1992)  due to lions not being native to Thailand.
To conserve or not to conserve
Although the compromised well-being of these animals is a real cause for concern, it is easily prevented (just don’t breed them!); it is the subconscious and conscious messages of exhibiting ligers slipping through the cracks that are more difficult to correct.
Misinformation such as a sign stating a liger’s scientific name is Panthera Leo, although annoying, is not nearly as harmful as the subconscious message implying that zoos and tourism facilities should have ‘weird’, ‘unnatural’ animal morphs like these to generate income and visitor traffic, impeding the efforts proper zoos have gone through to accurately inform the public about the challenges for conserving big cats in the wild and through captive efforts.
Worse still is the implication that by visiting ligers, tourists are contributing to conservation efforts. Contrary to what the facilities advertise, ligers do not facilitate big cat conservation in any way because, as we mentioned, they simply don’t exist in the wild. Therefore, facilities that continue to propagate them are admitting to the unethical reasoning behind breeding these unnatural animals - which is for profit. While most animal facilities in Thailand are run for profit, and that fact in itself is not necessarily bad, the breeding of unhealthy hybrids with a range of welfare issues should be avoided at facilities that want to maintain a modicum of credibility.
And there you have it! If you see facilities advertising ligers, please avoid them at all costs! By doing so, you help to reduce demand for ligers, potentially encouraging facilities to reconsider their breeding practices. You can also spread awareness to your friends and family via sharing this post to other social media platforms!
If you happen across a facility advertising ligers while traveling in Thailand, please inform For Tigers as we are currently trying to map the increase in this breeding practice.
McKinnel, Z., and Wessel, G. (2012) ‘Ligers and tigers and…what?...oh my!’, Molecular Reproduction and Development, 79(3), pp. 1. DOI: 10.1002/mrd.22074
Patel, R.K. (2014) ‘Hybrid animals - an interesting update’, The Blue Cross Book, 30, pp. 94-98. Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Rajesh-Patel-24/publication/265389740_Hybrid_animals-_an_interesting_update/links/540d619f0cf2f2b29a384090/Hybrid-animals-an-interesting-update.pdf
ALDF (2016) ‘Requesting rulemaking to ensure the use of appropriate methods to prevent, control, diagnose and treat diseases in injuries for big cats under the federal Animal Welfare Act. Petition before the United States Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service’. July 29, 2016
ThaiLaws (2018) Wild Animal Reservation and Protection Act, BE 2535 (1992). Available at: http://thailaws.com/law/t_laws/tlaw0317.pdf