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, which 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:
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.
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.
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.
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 a white lion 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.
What went wrong?
When white lions were first spotted by Europeans, their rarity created such 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.
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 and 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 since their unusual colour confuses their prey.
So, where are they 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.