The White Lions of South Africa

Author: WanderingThru

The lion is one of the most majestic animals known to man. They rule the African savanna with sheer power and strength, fearless in the face of other animals. But this does not make them infallible to danger and enemies. Lions may still be considered the ‘king of the jungle’; however, it is outdated since they now roam in managed conservation pockets in Africa.

Biology & Diversity

Lions (Panthera leo) belong to the Panthera genus and Felidae family, recognized by The IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) for their two subspecies, the African and Asiatic lion. As is the case with all other species, genetic diversity has been a critical component to their survival. Unfortunately, they are currently listed as a vulnerable species (VU) in terms of extinction risk as their population is decreasing, so it’s essential to protect the lion and ensure their genetic diversity. Otherwise, future generations won’t have the opportunity to experience this regal animal in nature. The species’ last remaining refuge now exists in Africa. Amongst lions however, in a small pocket in the Greater Kruger area lives, also the rare and almost mystic kind: the white lions .

Mutants & family members

So, what makes the lion so unique, and specifically, the white lions? Let’s delve into the history of these phenomenal felines learning more about them and their origins. Is a white lion genetically diverse from other sub-species of a lion then? The short answer is no. Much has been said about this rare color morph. Some say they’re albinos, but in fact they are not. What makes them different is that they have a rare color mutation causing their fur to be white while their skin and eyes retain their natural pigment. Research by Dr. Desire Dalton and Susan Miller was conducted over the lions populations of the Timbavati (where this rare mutation is observed) and found that white lions did not have the Tyrosinase gene responsible for albinism.

Specific to Southern Africa

So, if white lions are not genetically different from African lions, are they naturally found worldwide? No, they aren’t. The white lions are currently only found in the Kruger2 Canyons Biosphere reserve. Currently there are only 3 wild-born white lions living in the wild, 2 of them can be seen at andbeyond Ngala Tented Camp the Greater Kruger and one of them is now roaming to establish himself  as a dominant male in the central regions of the Kruger National Park itself and was born to the dominant pride found at Singita Lebombo.

Why Are White Lions So Special?

White lions are so special because of their rare color mutation and how few of them there are roaming in the wild. As is with many cases and recessive genes, particular conditions must be met for this “white” coat to manifest. For a white lion to be born the mating female and male lion must carry this recessive gene to produce a white lion cub (even if the parents themselves are of a tawny coloration). The likelihood of both lions having this gene is extremely uncommon, which is why these pale-coloured lions are so special. Sadly, the white lions’ peak population is yet unknown. The recorded decline in their numbers began in the mid-1970s when Europeans forcefully removed white lions from the wild through trophy hunting, captive breeding, and culling. Over time, the white lion gene was vanquished entirely in the wild, leading to a 12-year technical extinction. An estimated fifteen white lions remain in their natural habitat; despite being on the verge of extinction, they’re a listed vulnerable species by the IUCN, still not endangered.

The Background Story: legends and history.

Europeans first spotted and described the white lion in the Timbavati region of South Africa during the late 1930s and mid-1970s. However accounts of white lions have been around for centuries and according to legend, the white lions were children of the Sun God, sent to earth as gifts.

Oral traditions portray the first appearance of the white lions over 400 years ago during the reign of Queen Numbi in the region now known today as the Timbavati. According to these story, Queen Numbi had seen a shining star falling to the ground and once her and her people had approached it they found it to be a shining ball of metal, brighter than the sun. Queen Numbi approached it was swallowed by its light and when she emerged again, she had been restored to health and youth. The fallen star remained there for some days and then rose back into the sky. For many years after this event, white-offspring were born to those animals species who stayed where this mysterious star had fallen…

Although oral tradition and early European records spoke of these mystical lions, it was only in 1975 in the Timbavati that researcher Chris McBride found a litter containing 2 white lion cubs; these two cubs were subsequently captured, taken into captivity and named Temba and Tombi.

White lions went then technically extinct and where only rediscovered in 20014 at Singita Lebombo (a long way away from the Timbavati). This distinctive male white lion, who was born into the Shishangaan pride in July 2014 continues to roam the wilderness and has now become a nomadic male, in search of establishing his own territory and sire his own (hopefully white!) cubs.

In the Timbavati on the other hand, news broke out when one of four cubs was born to the Birmingham female in 2018. Another female within the same pride also gave birth during the same approximate timeframe and astonishingly, within her litter of just three cubs, two were white. Sadly though, all three cubs where killed in a pride takeover from intruding males as it normally happens within lion populations. To everyone’s surprise however the mating of the Ross’ males and the Birmingham females produced sometime later not one, but 2 white lion cubs (a male and a female) which currently live in the wild and can be seen at andbeyond Ngala Safari lodge.

Understanding Ghosts

‘In the end, we will protect only what we love. We will love only what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught.’ Baba Dioum

Twin a rare opportunity with the chance to spot South Africa’s rare white lion, and you get a life-changing safari. The Timbavati Private Nature Reserve and the Greater Kruger have become known for its white lions located in their natural habitat. Humans sparsely inhabit the land here. As a result, the region is a pristine wilderness, far from the restored lands found elsewhere.

To plan your safari to head in search of these magnificent lions, contact us today.


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