A pale Bengal tiger – not fiery orange, not snow-white, but something in between – has been photographed in South India.

Nilanjan Ray, an enthusiastic wildlife photographer, captured images of the fair-furred cat in 2017 while on a forest drive with a guide in the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, an ecologically diverse sanctuary in the Nilgiri range of the Western Ghats.

After rounding a curve, they saw a tiger – of normal colouration, as far as Ray could see – in the road some 200 feet away, which quickly bounded up a slope. After waiting for another glimpse, Ray and the guide drove slowly past where they’d seen the animal.

That’s when they spotted an “extremely pale” tiger uphill, partly veiled by vegetation but gazing directly at them with a “rather curious” look.

Ray describes the tiger’s evocative hide as “whitish (but not pure white) in colour, with a golden tinge.”

As this staring contest continued, Ray and the guide noticed a second tiger – this one dressed in more traditional orange – in the foreground. As the pale cat, at least, appeared to be a subadult, it’s possible the pair represented a mother and cub or two siblings.

The wonderfully washed-out beast Ray was lucky enough to cross paths with is no albino and doesn’t appear to be a “white tiger” – that highly uncommon and highly celebrated colour variant of the Bengal tiger. Zoologist Parvish Pandya, whom Ray sent his pictures to for consultation, told The News Minute that the tiger’s paleness likely reflects a low-odds genetic recombination: an example of colour morphism.

Belinda Wright of the Wildlife Protection Society of India told The Times of India she’d seen a pale tiger once before, decades ago in Ranthambore, but its muted tone wasn’t so pronounced as the Nilgiri cat’s. “[This] could be the palest wild tiger spotted in India in many decades,” she said.

The recessive trait that gives true white tigers their singular appearance rarely surfaces in the wild; a free-ranging one hasn’t been recorded since 1958. An amino-acid mutation in a single gene prevents white tigers from producing the form of melanin pigments (pheomelanin) responsible for the red-yellow colour spectrum, resulting in their milky pelage. Because they still make enough black-brown melanin (eumelanin), though, the bleached cats retain dark stripes.

White tigers – which also typically sport blue eyes and pink noses and pawpads – are these days only found in captivity (where they tend to be high-profile celebrities). The current population, beset by the inbreeding necessary to perpetuate the atypical look, descends from a single male, Mohan, caught in 1951 in central India.

The pale tiger, meanwhile, is prowling freely in its Nilgiri forests, and authorities are taking measures to ensure that remains the case. Ray informed the regional forest department of the animal’s presence, and he said they’re monitoring it and keeping its location under wraps to protect it from poachers (not to mention general gawkers).