The Greater Timbavati and southern Kruger Park region in South Africa is the only place on this Earth where white Lions originate naturally. The name Timbavati in the ancient Shangaan language means “the place where something sacred came down to earth – like a bird or angel from the heavens!” So the site of their origin echoes the White Lions’ mythical status. Some beliefs say, that they are “Lions of God – who came from the stars.” Like that other revered site, Great Zimbabwe, the clue is rooted in the word Timba-vati: Tsimba – means ‘lion’. Hence, this is the site where angelic winged lions were believed to have come down to earth.
These animals have made a significant contribution to the natural biodiversity of the region. They are rare color mutation of the Kruger subspecies Panthera leo krugeri and are rarely found in wildlife reserves. They have been perpetuated by selective breeding in zoos around the world. They are not a separate subspecies and are said to be native to the Timbavati region for centuries, although the first recorded sighting in the region was 1938 by a European witness Joyce Little, whose family owned large tracks of land in Timbavati, and were friends of President Kruger. Considered as divine by the locals, the civilized people took the stories of their presence as a figment of legend prevalent in South Africa. The lion’s white pelage is said to symbolize the goodness in all creatures.
These animals first came to public attention in the 1970s when Chris McBride wrote his book The White Lions of Timbavati. Till the first pride of white lions was reintroduced to the wild in 2009 it was a popular belief that the white lions could not survive in the wild for long. Perhaps this is the reason that a large part of the population of these lions is in zoos. Another sizeable number, however, are bred in camps, for canned hunting trophies.
It is difficult to find out exactly how many white lions are there today. Reason is that these animals are not legally protected in the wild or in captivity; consequently they can be sold, traded, held for captive breeding and for hunting operations for which no records are kept. Trophy hunting in the region has very badly depleted the gene pool of these magnificent animals, which has contributed to the drastic decline in the frequency of occurrence of White Lions in the wild.
Based on existing evidences, The Global White Lion Protection Trust (GWLPT) estimates there are about 300 white Lions world-wide. Through dedicated scientific study, the Trust is working to have these animals classified as a rare variant or regional polymorphism of the African lion so that they may be formally protected locally, nationally and globally.
White lions are not albinos, as commonly believed. Like the white tigers, lions also get this unusual colour because of the chinchilla mutation, a recessive gene. It is different from the albinism gene. These lions differ from blonde through near-white and usually have pigments in the eyes (they can be green-gray, blue-gray, normal hazel or of golden color), paw pads and the lips. White lions with Blue-eyes exist and may be selectively bred. The leucistic characteristic is due to the chinchilla mutation that hinders the deposition of pigment along the hair shaft, confining it only to the tips. The less pigment there is along the hair shaft, the paler the lion. As a result of this “white” lions range from blonde through to near white. Males have pale manes and tail tips instead of the standard dark tawny or black. They have Black features on the tip of their noses as well as ‘eye-lining’ and dark patches behind their ears – ‘follow-me signs’. The Latin name of Panthera leo krugeriis not limited only to white lions, instead it applies to all South African subspecies whose prides are mostly live in Kruger National Park and nearby game reserves.
The specimens which are white usually have a golden or yellowish-brown eye color, which is very similar to their tawny cousins, though some have bluish coloring too like the white tigers.
These colours, however, do not appear as a disadvantage to their survival. For instance, in 2003 the Global White Lion Protection Trust (GWLPT) initiated the first ever reintroduction of these lions to their natural endemic range – the Greater Timbavati region in South Africa. This pride of “all” white lions adapted so well to its wild habitat that this reintroduction shattered the misperception that white lions cannot hunt successfully (within their natural endemic habitat) due to a perceived lack of camouflage. After the success of the project now WLT has taken up the restoration of the natural balance by reintroducing an integrated pride/s of white and tawny lions within their endemic range as its long-term objective.
According to the Trust, tawny lions in the Greater Timbavati region still carry the rare White Lion gene. However, the rate of occurrence is extremely rare and statistically unknown. The GWLPT is working to identify the rare gene. If both parents are tawny and are carrying the white gene there is a 25% chance of a white cub. If one parent is white and the other is tawny but carries the white gene, there is a 50% chance of a cub being white. If both parents are white, 100% of the offspring will be white.
Once White Lions have been integrated into the tawny lion populations within their natural distribution range, the natural dynamics of their endemic region will be restored. However, whilst trophy hunting persists in the Greater Timbavati region, any tawny lion hunted, could be one of the last bearers of the White Lion gene.
Breeding white lions
These animals can be bred selectively for wildlife parks, animal shows and zoos. Such activity involves inbreeding among the close relatives. Disadvantage with this kind of breeding is that it can result in inbreeding depression (physical and genetic defects and reduced fertility etc.), though it has not yet been documented in white lions as it has been in white tigers.
According to Tucker, in canned hunt camps white lions have been found suffering from serious heart defects and hind-limb paralysis indicating a severe level of inbreeding involved in mass-production although they are rare in the wild. People are concerned about the White Lions mating with the lions of other alleles, because of probable extinction of these animals. However, this is not valid as the offspring will inherit the white gene and therefore make it feasible to produce white young in a later generation. Some critics are of the opinion that white lions should not be released in the wild because of the inbreeding that has taken place in zoos and breeding camps. However, ethical reintroduction programs such as The Global White Lion Protection Trust have ensured through the use of scientific methodologies that the lions in their program are not inbred.
Timbavati’s White Lions
White Lions were recorded for the first time in 1938 and then in the early 1940s. Later two white cubs were seen in a pride near Tshokwane in Kruger National Park in 1959, but they vanished soon. According to David Alderton‘s book “Wild Cats of the World” albino lions had been recorded in the area. A light gray lion cub was born at Birmingham Zoo in Alabama in 1974. Two white cubs were also seen at Timbavati Game Reserve, adjacent to Kruger National Park in 1975. Chris McBride has written about them in detail in his book “The White Lions of Timbavati”. The two cubs, Tombi (“girl”) and Temba (Zulu for “hope”) had a tawny brother called Vela (“surprise”). In 1975, a white female cub called Phuma (“to be out of the ordinary”) was sighted in the Timberland pride.
All the three cubs (who carried the recessive white mutation) were taken to the National Zoo in Pretoria, South Africa, a few months later. Later on Temba sired several cubs. Tombi had a white cub in 1981; though it was low in health but survived. Vela sired a litter; they grew up to be strong. The most unusual thing was that one out of the four was white while the rest were almost blonde. The lions in the Ouwehands Dierenpark (Netherlands) and in a private zoo in South Africa appear to be from Temba, or possibly Vela lines. After the removal of Tombi, Temba, and Vela few other white and blond cubs were born in Timbavati, but none of them survived. Another white lion bloodline, probably part of the Timbavati bloodline, comes from a white male captured in the Timbavati region in the late 1980s and kept by a private reserve. The Greater Timbavati region is characterised by white sandy riverbeds and in the winter the long grass is scorched pale. The last white lion was seen in the wild in 1994, after which they were technically extinct in the wild.
In 2006 two sets of white cubs were born to two separate tawny prides in the Greater Timbavati region, but none of the cubs survived after the dominant male of both prides was trophy hunted. The survival rate of cubs to adulthood in the wild is, at best, 20 per cent.
Birth of four cubs in a Zoo
In May 2007 four white cubs were born in Jurques Zoo in France. There were three females and one male. Each one of them weighed about 1.5 kilograms (3.3 pounds) at birth, and all four were in good health. However, they needed to be hand fed as their mother was not taking good care of them.
In Belgrade zoo (Serbia) four cubs were born to two lionesses in 2010, each weighing about 1.5kg (3.3 pounds). Four new white lions were born in April 2011. It is being said that this zoo has become known as a center of natural reproduction of white lions. The first specimen of the animal arrived in 2005 and Belgrade zoo became the first in Europe to have the rare animals, it is being claimed.