First seen on the Singita concession in July 2014 (then said to be aged about 3 – 4 months), the unique white lion cub has since been spotted several times by those lucky few who have been patient and persistent enough to search for them on the S100 and S41 roads, east of Satara camp.
What are white lions?
No, they're not albinos. Rather they're leucistic. What's the difference, you may ask? Albinos occur when there is a complete lack of pigmentation, producing the typical red eyes. By contrast, leucism is only a reduced amount of pigmentation: often the pelts are white yet the eyes can be blue or their normal colour. Both albinoism and leucism appear in most species (humans, animals, birds and reptiles), both are genetic and can only occur if one or both of the parents are 'carriers'. [See our earlier blog Is it All Right to be White? about a leucistic vervet monkey.]
However, for white lions to occur, both parents need to be carriers of the recessive 'white' gene. It's not uncommon for some of the cubs to be born normal or tawny and the others white, depending on which gene was dominant.
Where do they come from?
According to ancient African tribal lore, the white lions have been seen in the Timbavati area (which borders onto the Kruger National Park) for hundreds of years. 1938 saw the first documented sighting of a white lion in the area. In the mid-1970s, white lions were once again seen in the Timbavati and caused quite a stir locally and abroad. Several people recorded the story in books, the most famous of which is Chris McBride's “The White Lions of the Timbavati”.
In the 1990s, the white lions virtually disappeared or became dormant. In 2006, a pair of white cubs were born to a tawny lioness in the Umbabat Game Reserve on the northern Timbavati border, the first white lions recorded for almost 13 years. Since then, there have only been another 16 recorded births from five different prides.
Discovering 'new' white lions in Kruger National Park, some distance from the original Timbavati area is considered normal. It reflects the natural dispersal of lion away from the area of their birth.
Amid renewed excitement, there's now been a second white cub seen with the Satara pride, which consists of 11 females and a coalition of five males, collectively taking care of 12 cubs born from four of the females.
According to the White Lion Protection Trust, there are now 13 white lions, living 'free' in game reserves.
Will they survive in the wild?
There are those who question whether white lions can survive and hunt successfully in the wild. This led to many white lion being relocated into zoos and hunting and breeding camps.
Generally, lion cubs have a high mortality rate – regardless of their colour. Often, they succumb to other predators or other lions, particular during a pride takeover by the new males. Perhaps white lion do 'stick out' more and pose a higher risk.
However, those that do make it to adulthood have proven to be successful hunters. Some even say that their prey is often confused by their 'whiteness' and may not even realise that they are lion, making hunting even easier for them.
Are white lions mythical creatures?
In the ancient tribal lands of the Timbavati, white lions are revered as spirits of deceased kings by the local Tsonga people. They are said to be imbued with 'spiritual' powers. In yet other myths, they are said to be the children of the sun god sent to Earth as divine gifts. Oral traditions (recalling much of African traditions and history) mention the special birth of a white lion, heralded by a star that fell to Earth, during Queen Numbi's reign more than 400 years ago. There are also some who claim that white lion are a different species altogether...
These are all myths, of course. But what is certain is that white lions are an incredibly rare and special sighting, whether in the Timbavati Game Reserve or in the Kruger National Park. Our senior guide, Simon, has been fortunate to capture these photos of Kruger's latest white lion cub, which appears to be healthy and doing well, having already survived the most critical first few months of a lion's life.
What are your thoughts? Have you ever seen a white lion? Was that in a zoo – or in the wild? Please share your experiences with us in the comments below.
About the author
A 'word smith' or copywriter with over 25 years experience, love travelling, wildlife and conservation; fascinated by alternative energy, alternative building and alternative health. Consummate reader and traveller, both internationally and southern Africa. Have two remarkable daughters that continue to amaze and teach me daily. Consider myself privileged to live on the best continent on the planet.