Our Blog and News

24 July 2020

Ranger Tammy

White Lions

Hello everyone! Welcome back to another blog.

As a lot of you may have guessed (and maybe some of you didn’t), the track that I asked you to identify in my last blog was that of a Lion (Panthera leo), however, this particular track doesn’t belong to just any lion – it is the track of a rare White Lion (Panthera leo).

If you really think about it, what is a lion?

Obviously, they are a beautiful, large, and powerfully-built cat but there is so much more to them than that! As they walk, you can only watch in awe at how their well-defined muscles move under their skin. Even though they are so muscular, lions have loose skin hanging from their midsection, making them look as if they have recently given birth to a litter of cubs, this loose skin is possibly to help protect the lion from the sharp hooves of their frantic prey.

Just look at those muscles!!

Male lions have a gorgeous long mane (the mane either matches the colour of his body or becomes darker and even black) which covers the top of his head and hangs flawlessly around the side of his face, down and around his neck, and shoulders till halfway down his back, almost as if he were wearing an over-sized fluffy hoody. The mane greatly protects the males’ neck and vital organs when fighting other males for territory or breeding rights with females. Females on the other hand, do not have this prominent mane. Which makes Lions the only cat species with such defined physical sexual dimorphism (difference in appearance between male and female).

Mane and loose belly skin

Looking at their face – both male and female – have characteristic white markings around their eyes which reflect moon and star light into their eyes enabling them to see much better at night when they hunt. They have perfectly round ears and a characteristic hairy tuft at the end of their tail.

Lions are social cats forming ‘groups’ compiling of usually one or two dominant males and several related females with their cubs. We refer to these ‘groups’ as prides. This is an incredibly unique adaptation as cat species in general tend to prefer being strictly solitary.

Pride of tawny and white Lions

As a pride, Lions are apex (predators at the top of the food chain with no natural predators themselves) and keystone (predators that prevent a particular herbivore-plant eating species – from overgrazing) predators, preying mostly on larger prey animals such as Zebra, Wildebeest, Buffalo etc. However, Lions are also opportunistic, preying on any easy target in their nearby vicinity.

From head to tail lions can grow up to three meters long, with the tail itself being about 60 to 90 centimetres long. Typically lions can weigh anything between 150 and 240 kilograms, with males weighing closer to 240 kilograms and females weighing closer to 150 kilograms.

Here at Inkwenkwezi we are running a breeding program for White Lions. Our aim is to increase the white lion population and gene pool in the wild. We have one pride of lions comprising of both white and tawny lions however, all our lions carry the recessive ‘white lion gene’. Our lions are in a 100-hectare (1 km2) fenced reserve, which is in the centre of the game reserve. This enables us to closely monitor them with regards to the breeding program and they are better protected. They are completely wild and do hunt smaller game within the lion reserve (duiker, warthog, bush pig etc.) however, we do also supplement their diet. There is no interaction at all with the lions. Having no interaction with the adult lions or the cubs is essential in integrating the lions back into the wild.

You may be wondering what makes a white lion so special.  Well, you just need to look at one and you will know.

They have magnificent steel blue eyes and their coat is a beautiful pale white colour, which often has a blond/yellowish tinge to it. White Lions are just as big as a Tawny Brown Lion and are the same exact species (Panthera leo), but just with different colouring.

The most common assumption is that a white lion is albino, however this is not true. White lions have an exceedingly rare recessive genetic mutation known as ‘leucism’. This gene causes the lions coat to be paler in appearance than that of a tawny lion. White lions still have black markings on their inner eye-line, they have black pigment on their nose, around their mouth and on the pads of their paws. They also have dark markings behind their ears where with a tawny lion the markings behind the ears would be completely black. This would all be absent if a lion was albino. Albino lions lack pigment completely, giving them pink/red colour eyes, a pink nose and mouth and pink pads under the paws.

Both parents need to carry the ‘white lion gene’, which is incredible recessive, in order for a white lion cub to be born. With a lot of luck, you may have one or two white cubs in a litter amongst tawny cubs or you may have no white cubs at all. This is because even though the cub may carry the recessive gene, it doesn’t guarantee the white appearance. However, with a strong bloodline of the ‘white lion gene’ there may be times where majority, if not all the cubs are white.

The closest comparison that I can give you is blue eyes in humans. It is a recessive gene which is dominated by other eye colours.

I also have a photograph of a Waterbuck cow which also has leucism. Showing you that the recessive ‘white gene’ is not only found in lions.

Unfortunately, historically in the 1970s when white lions were first discovered (on record), a lot of them were removed from the wild and placed in zoos to showcase them or they were hunted for their coat as a trophy. Due to excess hunting, it was thought that the entire white lion gene pool had gone extinct in the wild, until about the year 2006 where there were reports of white lions being born in the Timbavati and neighbouring reserves. This just proves that the ‘white gene’ is a natural occurrence in the wild.

Actually, if you think about it, the white colouring really makes sense. White lions are endemic to the Greater Timbavati and Southern Kruger National Park region. These regions are characterised by white sandy riverbeds and long pale grass in the winter so their colouring enables white lions to camouflage well. You must also keep in mind that most ‘prey’ animals are in fact partially colour blind and don’t see a real difference in appearance between a white lion and a tawny lion, and because lions hunt mostly at night, this makes their colour difference even less drastic to ‘prey’ animals.

Something that I found remarkably interesting when I was researching White Lions is that in the year 2015 a complete white lion pride was released from a breeding program in the Timbavati region and they were closely monitored for one year. It turns out that the pride acted as if they had been in the wild their entire lives. Ninety-five successful kills were documented throughout this year period which proves that hunting is a natural instinct and that white lions, contrary to popular belief, do actually survive very well in the wild. Their numbers are so low due to the rarity of the recessive gene and from being hunted for their coat.

I don’t know about you, but I am in love with African Folklore. Although a lot of the facts may be stretched and farfetched, there is always some truth in the story.

While researching even more about white lions, I came across the most incredible folklore story about the origins of a white lion told by word of mouth through generations.

Now, apparently the first sighting of a white lion was documented to be in the year 1938, this folklore tale describes the first white lion sighting 400 years before that. The story takes us back to a time when Queen Numbi reigned the Timbavati region. The white lions were referred to as children of the Sun God and were sent to the earth as a gift.

Please keep in mind that the text I am sharing with you below is not my own words and all credits are given to Linda Tucker for her brilliant research and I can only thank her for sharing such an incredible story with all of us.

“A shining star was seen to fall to the ground, but when Queen Numbi and her people approached, they found it to be a shining ball of metal, brighter than the sun. Queen Numbi, who was an elderly and infirm woman, was swallowed by its light and received by strange beings. 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. Animals with strange deformities were born in that region – cattle with 2 heads, white impala and green-eyed white leopards and lions.”

This is just a snippet from Linda Tuckers’ book – “Mystery of the White Lions”, so if you are a fan of African folklore like me, then this book is a must read.

There is so much speculation as to how many white lions there actually are currently in the world, but the general assumption is that there are less than 300 individuals, including all captive lions, lions in breeding programs and those in the wild. There is an estimated 3-15 individuals free roaming in the wild.

Therefore, breeding programs like ours are so important, not many people realise how rare these magnificent animals are.

The lion population as a whole is listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species (International Union for Conservation of Nature) as Vulnerable. Unfortunately, because white lions are still classified as (Panthera leo) they are also merely classified as Vulnerable even though they are on the verge of extinction.

Luckily, there are many breeding programs for white lions nowadays and with the huge combined efforts being made by conservationists around the country we are hoping to get the population numbers of white lions higher again.

Thank you all for reading another one of my blogs.

Remember to stay safe and keep well!

Warm regards,

Ranger Tammy

3 Comments:

  1. Excellent Tams and very informative.

  2. Fascinating animal and a real challenge to a veterinarian to anaesthetise. Collapse of the valves stops supply of blood to the brain and death. Once down the animal has to be given the reversal drug in few minutes to prevent the cardio respiratory collapse. Enjoy the lovely rain regards

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *