July 6

White Lions: The Myth and Majesty

By Ash Hooper on
July 6, 2017

No, no, we’re not attempting to lure you with false facts or stories of lions who’ve just had their hair bleached. White lions do, in fact, exist, and are truly magnificent anomalies. That said, they are also under threat and have been for decades. It even led to their 12-year technical extinction in the wild. Conservationists and game reserves are involved in an ongoing battle to ensure white lions have a safe, and rightful place in nature. Read on to see why:

A white lion yawns
Photo credit: Tambako

So, they’re albinos, right?

First things first: white lions are not albinos. They are also not a different species of lion. Their condition is known as  ‘leucism,’ a rarity where a recessive mutation in the gene causes the lion’s coat to vary from near-white to blonde, rather than the common tawny.

A young white lion
A young white lion

Some albino lions, in contrast, lack pigment completely, while leucistic lions show black features on the tip of their nose, black patches behind their ears, and have the look of ‘eye-liner’ around their blue/gold eyes.

A majestic young white lion
Photo credit: Tambako

Okay… so does the parent carry down the ‘white lion’ gene?

A cub is born white only if both of its parents carry the recessive ‘white’ gene. As a result, there are instances where there will be a mix of classic tawny lion cubs and white lion cubs born in the same litter. Think of it as a similar situation to humans with blue eyes; it is, quite simply, all in the genes.

A mother with her white lion cubs
Photo credit: Gerald Friedrich

Scientifically, the white lion is a result of a genetic rarity but in a cultural narrative, they mean much more.

The king of all kings

In the Timbavati region of South Africa, where the white lion was first spotted, the Sepedi and Tsonga communities consider them to be “the most sacred animal on the African continent”. Although a sighting was first recorded in 1938, African oral records tell a completely different story.

African high priests, known as isanusi, have told many tales dating some 400 years to a time when Queen Numbi reigned. The white lion was then, and still is, thought of as divine, sent from above.

The Timbavati is the sanctuary of the white lion
The white lions of the Timbavati

What went wrong?

When white lions were first spotted by Europeans, their rarity created a stir that decades of hunting and capture ensued. The white lion gene pool was eventually completely wiped out in the wild due to forced removals and trophy hunting. White lions were put in zoos and specially bred in captivity.

A white lion approaches at Sanbona
A male white lion in the wild, photo credit: Tania de Kock

It wasn’t just entertainment that kept these creatures in captivity, it was ignorance, too. Conservationists influential at the time thought that white lions were genetically inferior to other lions. It was also thought that their white appearance somehow impacted their safety and survival in the wild.

However, there is no scientific evidence to prove this. White lions are just as strong, and hunt just as well, as their tawny siblings. It has even been suggested that their white hair actually helps them when hunting. It seems that their unusual colour confuses their prey.

So, where are the white lions now?

While listed as “vulnerable”, there are no official laws that protect white lions from the effects of the canned lion hunting industry. Because of this, the fight for their survival continues.

The white lion has been successfully introduced into certain areas of the wild. In South Africa, they roam free in the southern parts of the Kruger National Park and in the Timbavati region, their ancestral homelands.

A white lioness at Umlani Bushcamp
A white lioness at Umlani Bushcamp

If you are eager to visit the Timbavati Game Reserve and encounter these majestic creatures in their natural habitat then feel free to one of our consultants.

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About the author 

Ash Hooper

The travel bug bit when Ashleigh was just a teen and a two-month exchange to Turkey resulted in a continued desire to take in the world. Writing became a natural response to what she saw, who she met, and what she learnt. Whether in the Caribbean on a Cuban train, part of the throngs of people on a ferry in the Philippines, or in the Mother City she calls home, Ash always has her pen and notebook ready. Not to mention a snack stash and some mementos to remind her of her proudly South African roots.

  • I really needed this imformation for my project! THANKS!!! and not just for infomation, for fighting for the survival of these amazing creatures!!!!!!!!!

  • All animals are beautiful & need our protection from the 2 legged predator. That has & will always be the number one priority to humans, money. If they can’t get what they want destroy or kill is their solution. We should protect these lions & other large cats before extinction. Hopefully they will be able to walk free then be in a zoo.

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