White Lions of the Timbavati

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© Chad Cocking

I have been fortunate enough to have spent the last week guiding and working out of Motswari Private Game Reserve. This warm and friendly 4 star lodge is in the world famous Timbavati Game Reserve, which is open to and borders the Kruger National Park. It has been an awesome experience, and the expanse and size of the reserve truly unshackles the stresses of city life. In terms of guiding, where else can you go where you can track a crash of rhinos for hours, find them, blow your foreign guests away, and in that time not see another vehicle? Everything about the place exudes wilderness and you begin to appreciate the natural therapy the bush offers. Obviously, there are drawbacks and less vehicles means less sightings, but what you lack in sightings is made up for in the experience.One of the major draw cards for the reserve is the presence of the only three wild white lions in the world that so mysteriously exist here. There are two lionesses that are part of the Kubasa Pride, and one lioness that is part of the Giraffe Farm Pride. At Motswari, the Kubasa prides’ territory falls within their traversing area, and as such many guests both foreign and local have had the joy of experiencing these unique, but beautiful genetic anomalies.

© Chad Cocking

The condition is known as leucism and It is caused by a lack of skin colour pigment cells that produce melanin (dark pigments). The leucistic trait is due to the “chinchilla mutation” that inhibits the deposition of pigment along the hair shaft, restricting it to the tips. The less pigment there is along the hair shaft, the paler the lion. It must not be mistaken for albinism, which is the complete absence of any skin colour pigments, causing all visible skin to be pink. As such, they are white, and not the characteristic tawny lion colour.

© Chad Cocking

A White Lion cub is the offspring of 2 lions which carry the “autosomal recessive gene”. This does not necessarily mean that all the cubs in the litter will be white, but if both parents do not carry the gene, then none of the cubs will be white. They are not a different species as some may think, just an unusual natural genetic phenomenon. A similar, but more commonly known condition is well known, as most zoos around the world have black panthers. These are just melanistic jaguars and leopards, which is a genetic trait causing the over production of melanin, depositing more black pigment in the hair shaft. This is the opposite of leucism, and is known as melanism.

© Chad Cocking

As such, a brief history of the white lions of the Timbavati should be mentioned. They were first encountered in 1975 by a property owner, Chris McBride, who consequently wrote two books on the matter. Since then there has been sporadic encounters throughout the Timbavati with various prides in the area. Basically, it takes certain circumstances to produce white lions, and as such they are not common. Couple this with complicated lion pride dynamics, the occurrence of wild white lions is rare. Once white lions are born, they rarely make it to adulthood, as they are very conspicuous and are often found and killed by other predators when they are cubs. They also struggle to hunt as, at night, their white pelts are not exactly what you would call stealthy!But, it seems as though the current white lions have survived well enough and are now two years old. They hunt with their respective prides and are very healthy. In hunts where the lead lionesses feel they are too visible, it has been reported that the white lions will hang back behind termite mounds or thick bush, so that they do not alert the prey species to their impending doom. The behaviour of the pride with white lions has sparked numerous interest, and as such there is currently research being undertaken to understand the phenomenon and the associated pride behaviour.We hope that these lionesses survive the following difficult years until they are full adult lionesses, as they have given countless hours of joy to the guests that have been able to view them. I will keep you updated on their progress, and hope you can experience the spectacle of the “white lions of the Timbavati”.Images © Chad Cocking

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