Towards the end of 1900, Carl Hagenbeck, the noted German zoologist and animal trainer, wrote to his Scottish counterpart James Ewart, advising him that he had successfully bred a lion-tiger hybrid. The “liger,” as it became known, was the offspring of a male lion and a female tiger, and was born on this day in 1897. Up until this point, only a handful of successful liger births had been recorded, and little scientific research had been done on them.
The liger is not a naturally occurring subspecies. There is nowhere on Earth where lions and tigers exist side-by-side in the wild, so the only ligers in existence are the results of crossbreeding in captivity. They display characteristics of both parents, in behaviour and appearance. They often have faint stripes, and are fond of swimming, as with tigers, but they also favour social living, as with lions. More often than not, due to genetic mutations encountered during the crossbreeding process, they are sterile.
Ligers are recognised as the largest felines on the planet. An adult male liger grows much larger than an adult male lion, with Hagenbeck’s specimen being weighed at almost 70 pounds heavier than the typical male lion.
Carl Hagenbeck, born in Hamburg in 1844, is a somewhat controversial figure in the history of the cultivation of wild animals. For his visionary development of animal enclosures he is sometimes dubbed “the father of the modern zoo,” although some of his methods now appear a touch old-fashioned.
His interest in animals came from his father, who as well as trading as a fishmonger, had a lucrative side business trading in exotic animals. From a young age Hagenbeck was surrounded by all sorts of fascinating and unusual breeds, and with his father regularly making gifts to his enthusiastic son, he soon built up a collection that was worthy of display.
As he grew older, his interest deepened, and in 1874 he embarked on a tour of the world, capturing new species as he travelled for his expanding collection. The same year he began displaying his animals in a private zoo in Hamburg. Some of the most notable exhibits were not animals, but small groups of tribal peoples he had brought back from his travels. In what became known as the “human zoo,” Hagenbeck recreated the villages of native peoples from around the world, allowing fascinated audiences to glimpse into the alien world of Samoans, Inuits, and Nubians.
The human zoo lost popularity in the early 20th century, but Hagenbeck’s animals continued to attract vast numbers of people. His ligers, in particular, remained a central feature of his display, the immense cats enthralling all who saw them.
While frowned upon by some zoologists as being the product of a breeder’s whim, ligers continue to be bred. As a purely artificial entity they might have no real scientific value, but for their immense size and beauty, they remain popular features in animal collections the world over. Hagenbeck’s zoo continues to operate, but for the time being, ligers do not feature among its attractions.
Credit: © Christian Charisius /Reuters/Corbis
Caption: Bahier, a male liger, at a private zoo in Groemitz, Germany.