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What is a 'liger' — and why is it illegal?

Two lion-tiger hybrid cubs were born at a private zoo in Taiwan. Not everyone's excited.

Two "liger" cubs — the offspring of a Bengal tiger mother, Beauty, and African lion father, Simba — were born at a private Taiwan zoo last week. (See a liger.) Intentionally crossbreeding the animals is illegal under Taiwanese law, and if found guilty, zoo owner Huang Kuo-nan could face a $1,500 fine, plus confiscation of the cubs. But the incident became international news and sparked a debate over the ethics of crossbreeding:

What exactly is a liger?A cross between a male lion (Panthera leo) and female tiger (Panthera tigris). The liger is the world's largest big cat, growing up to 12 feet long and 1,200 lbs. Ligers resemble large lions with stripes; like tigers, they are comfortable in the water.

How were these liger cubs bred?Huang says their conception was unplanned, but he does concede that he left Beauty and Simba in the same cage. "Usually when a lion and a tiger are kept together, they will for sure attack each other to death," he explains, but Beauty and Simba are "childhood sweethearts" who have been mating for three years. He tried to separate the pair a while ago, Huang says, but the lion "got very angry."

Why are ligers illegal?Crossbreeding rare, protected species violates Taiwan's Wildlife Conservation Law. Most zoos frown on the crossbreeding of lions and tigers, too. Ligers "are basically freaks bred by unscrupulous zoos in order to make money out of people willing to pay to see them," says Liger.org. U.S. zoos have several ligers.

Why do some people choose to breed them?According to the title character in the 2004 film Napoleon Dynamite, it's for their "skills in magic." Mostly, though, ligers are either an unplanned result of housing different cat species together or a planned novelty animal. They've been recorded at least as far back as the early 1800s.

What other hybrid species are out there?The lion-tiger breeding works both ways, so you also have "tigons": the offspring of a male tiger and lioness. The controversial world of hybrids also includes "leopons" — the spawn of female leopards and male lions; several zebra-horse-donkey zebroids: zorses, zonkeys, and zonies; camas: camels and llamas; grolars and pizzlies: polar bears and grizzlies; and very rarely, "wolphins," or Bottlenose dolphins mated with false killer whales. 

Sources: Christian Science Monitor, Los Angeles Times, Time, Liger.org, Wikipedia, Focus Taiwan

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