Winter Games white tiger mascot symbolizes protection but sparks debate among animal activists
The mascot of the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games, named Soohorang, happens to be Korea's guardian animal, the white tiger.
Mascots have become a major element of the Olympic brand. Mascots help portray the Olympic spirit, convey the theme of the Olympic Games and showcase the distinctive geographical features, history and culture of the host city.
The tiger and the white tiger, in particular, are associated with Korean culture and mythology. The animal is regarded as sacred, as well as the guardian animal of the Republic of Korea.
According to the Olympics, Soohorang not only has a challenging spirit and passion but is also a trustworthy friend who protects the athletes, spectators and all the participants of the Olympic Games.
The mascot got his name from a Korean word, “Sooho,” which means protection in Korean and symbolizes the protection offered to all involved in the Winter Games.
While Soohorang is the 2018 Winter Olympics mascot, this black bear, named Bandabi, is the 2018 Paralympic mascot.
“The mascots have been designed to embody the collective will of everyone for the successful hosting of the Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2018, and experts of various fields contributed in the process,” said PyeongChang 2018 Organizing Committee (POCOG) President Lee Hee-beom.
Mascots have been a regular feature of the Olympic Games since the first official Olympic mascot, which was a dachshund in the 1972 Munich Games. They serve as popular and playful ambassadors for the host nation.
Originally, white tigers were the product of a rare but naturally occurring genetic variant within the wild Bengal population.
Records dating back at least 400 years show that wild white tigers used to live freely in the forests of India.
The last known wild white tiger was shot in 1958. According to Scientific American, experts do not know how long white tigers roamed freely in their natural habitat before trophy hunters, habitat loss and habitat fragmentation eradicated the rest.
Only the captive breeding population were left, therefore almost all of the white tigers alive today are originated from one single white tiger that was captured in 1951. White tigers have been inbred ever since, advocates say.
Animal activists agree white tigers should not be promoted.
We [The Wildcat Sanctuary] are extremely disappointed the Olympics chose a white tiger as a mascot. This will further promote a genetically inbred, compromised animal that breeders and exhibitors continue to exploit and breed for profit," Julie Hanan, advocacy coordinator for The Wildcat Sanctuary, said.
According to The Wildcat Sanctuary, in order to retain this recessive gene, zoos and breeders must continually inbreed.
"The average number of cubs born to get one healthy white tiger cub is 1 in 30. The neonatal mortality rate exceeds 80 percent for white tigers," Hanan said.
According to Hanan, this means a surplus orange tigers and imperfect white tigers born in the process are often unwanted and disposed of.
Deliberate inbreeding has maintained the animals’ recessive coloration, but it also has led to a wide range of health problems. This inbreeding has caused many genetic problems with tigers such as cleft palates, scoliosis of the spine, mental impairments and crossed eyes.
"When white tigers are showcased, it encourages the irresponsible inbreeding needed to supply this abusive industry. This white tiger mania is also a big reason why we have more orange tigers in cages in the U.S. today than tigers left roaming in the wild," Hanan said.
Odds are against white tigers being able to survive infancy to adulthood, especially in the wild; their white coat does not work well as camouflage for a predator that has to hunt to survive.