They are as rare as they are beautiful – stunning white lions, whose ancestral home is the Timbavati Region in the Greater Kruger area of South Africa. They are synonymous with the area, with the name Timbavati coming from the ancient XiTsonga language, meaning “the place where star-lions came down”.
White lions have a special place in African folklore and history, with legends telling that they were “children of the Sun God” and were “sent to earth as gifts”. Over 400 years ago, they were said to have been seen during the reign of Queen Numbi. They are considered to be “the most sacred animal on the African continent”, according to the Sepedi and Tsonga communities. They are known as symbols of leadership, pride, and royalty in some African countries, including Kenya and Botswana.
White lions have an ethereal quality to them, with dreamy-looking eyes, and a purity that seems angelic. They appear in various types of popular culture, including books, movies, paintings, and the cartoon character “Kimba the White Lion”, and are used in brand names and advertising.
There are only four white lions in the wild – a male in the Kruger National Park, a young male and related female of Timbavati’s mighty Birmingham Pride, and a newly-spotted cub, also in the Timbavati. That cub is so new that reports of its presence are only just beginning to come from safari guides in the area.
The status of white lions in captivity, however, is a very different story. After being spotted by Europeans for the first time in the 1970s, they were removed from the wild to be placed into captive breeding programs, zoos, and circuses. Then, as well as now, they were seen as a tourist attraction and overbred for entertainment. There are now hundreds of white lions in captivity across the globe. Despite that, they are still so rare that they attract a significantly larger sum than their tawny counterparts on a trophy hunter’s shopping list. Captured in Africa Foundation Director Drew Abrahamson explains that she “strongly believes that white lions should not be bred for any purposes whatsoever. They should be left to grace our planet if and when they choose and as nature intended”.
“White lions are the most sacred animal on the African continent”
~ Sepedi and Tsonga Communities
So, what makes a white lion white? Many people mistakenly believe them to be albino, but they are not. They are the same species as the tawny African lion, but they have a rare recessive gene, which causes them to be white due to a lack of pigment in their fur. Their eyes, paw pads and lips have visible pigment and their white fur can range from pure white to a darker creamy colour. Males have a pale mane, which can become a darker shade of blonde as it develops.
For a white lion to be born, both parents need to be white lions, or tawny lions with the white lion gene. There is a 25% chance of having a white cub if both parents are tawny with the white recessive gene, and a 50% chance if one parent is white and the other is tawny. If both parents are white, they will only produce white cubs. Because both parents can be tawny and still produce white lions, a litter can have both tawny and white lions born at the same time. This is the case with the Birmingham Pride. The two sub-adult white lions have tawny brothers and sisters. When these sub-adult males reach sexual maturity, they will be kicked out by the pride males and will more than likely form their own coalition, while the female will stay within the pride dynamic with her mother, sisters, and aunts. The white male is showing signs of dominance amongst his brothers, and it is hoped that in the next few years he will be able to take over a pride and have cubs of his own. Nature will determine whether any of them will be white.
There are differing opinions as to whether white lions are disadvantaged in the wild due to their colour. Some believe they are, as they are not able to camouflage as well as tawny lions, making them more visible to their rivals and poachers. It is believed by some that this makes them a less effective predator, however, how much they are camouflaged depends on the habitat they are in. They do not blend in as well as tawny lions in grasslands and similar vegetation, but in riverbeds and sandy areas, white lions can blend in better than tawny lions. Research has been undertaken to see if white lions are more disadvantaged than tawny lions, with the results showing that they are not. It is believed that living in a pride amongst tawny lions will help white lions to survive, with group hunting and protection, as well as many of their prey species being partially colour-blind and unable to distinguish between the different coloured lions.
As lions are said to only see in black, white and shades of grey, it is believed that tawny lions do not see their white pride mates as being different to them, nor do the white lions see their tawny relatives, or indeed themselves, as being different.
White lions have an ethereal quality to them, with
dreamy-looking eyes, and a purity that seems angelic.
With lions being the only social big cats, they are very tactile, living in tightknit prides and showing lots of affection between pride mates. That is, until feeding time, which is a messy, dangerous, and somewhat gruesome affair, with the lions being covered in blood and other detritus of the carcass, as well as dirt, grass and even mud. After a feeding frenzy, tawny lions will appear dirty, but it stands out even more for a white lion, which will appear filthy, covered in red and black marks, looking like they need to soak in a bath. It is remarkable to see that a short time later, after some self-grooming and with the help of their pride mates, who revert back to being affectionate, they will reappear pristine white once again.
Life for wild white lions is a difficult one. Besides facing the same threats as their tawny counterparts, including human/wildlife conflict and habitat issues, their numbers are low due to the white gene only coming out every so often. With a high mortality rate, their numbers aren’t able to grow at the same rate as tawny lions. With so few white lions in the wild, any loss of these animals, or tawny lions with the white lion gene, causes a significant decline in their numbers and their chance of growing the population in the future. Despite them being critically endangered, white lions are not protected, and are only officially listed as “vulnerable” in the same group as tawny lions.
Like all lion cubs, white lion cubs also face danger from within – being killed by nomadic male lions in search of new territories and prides to take over. There had not been any white lions in the Timbavati area for many years until, much to everyone’s delight, two of the Birmingham lionesses gave birth to three white cubs in 2017, along with four tawny cubs. The excitement was short-lived though, because soon afterwards, two new males arrived on the scene and took over the Birmingham Pride, killing all of the cubs. These Ross Males still lead the Birmingham Pride, so the current white lions are their offspring, which makes them safe within the pride.
“I strongly believe that white lions should not be bred for
any purposes whatsoever. They should be left to grace our
planet if and when they choose and as nature intended.”
~ Drew Abrahamson
White lions have a special place in Drew’s heart, due to her connection with the wild white lions that came out in Timbavati in the 1970’s. Drew’s mum Annette, was involved in the dipping of the cubs with the head state vet, Roy Bengis, after they got mange, which is easily treatable, but if left unchecked can be deadly, especially in cubs who have not built up their required immune system. Adult lions who have suffered from mange can still be carriers and when placed under stress with their immune systems dropping for any reason, the mange can then re-surface. Many reserves refuse to treat mange and the perception is that one needs to let nature take its course; however mange was first discovered in our wildlife areas roughly 35 years ago, which was transmitted via domestic livestock.
Drew and the Foundation have been involved in numerous lion rescues, a few of which have been white. These rescues have involved the lions being relocated from various facilities within South Africa to ethical sanctuaries, allowing them to live out their lives in peace and safety. Drew’s first white lion rescue was lioness Nyanga, who had killed a zoo employee at their breeding farm. Following a 4½ month long fight to save her from being euthanized, her forever home was secured at the Lions Rock Sanctuary.
Although there was no rescue or relocation needed in this instance, Drew will always have a strong connection with white lion Shalom. After he was born, his mother started to consume him, which females sometimes do when under stress. Shalom was taken away by lion carers and immediately taken to the vets who stitched him up in his entire groin and stomach area. Shalom needed to be carried around for months to prevent the stitches from pulling apart. Drew first visited him when he was about 10 weeks old and completely fell in love. She revisited him about two years later and upon seeing her, he went straight to the fence with lots of talking and head rubbing. He was most certainly growing into a magnificent young male lion.
They don’t know it, but the four white lions in the wild, as well as all tawny lions with the white lion gene, have a special role to play in the survival of these majestic cats. It would be a terrible tragedy to lose the last of the pure white lion genes, leading to their extinction in the wild. White lions are a great example of the wonders of nature, and with the white gene coming out naturally, we humans are able to witness nature at its finest.
We must do everything we can to protect all lions in the wild, both tawny and white. These precious animals have been around for generations, and it must not be our generation that destroys what’s left.
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