White Lions of the Timbavati

White Lions of the Timbavati

The Timbavati is famously known for it's white lions and people travel from far and wide to try get a glimpse at these rare cats. A naturally occuring phenomenon, why are there so few and why are they so white?!

History of White Lions

White lions, long alluded to ancient texts dating back some 400 years, remained mysterious and illusive, until 1928. The first report of sightings emerged from the area now known as the Timbavati, by the local Shangaan people, who regarded as divine. Twenty years later Joyce Mostert, whose family owned land in the area, was credited as the ‘first European’ to confirm the existence of these rare animals. It wasn’t until 1975, that white lions came to public attention, via Chris McBride’s book “The White Lions of Timbavati”. He came across a pride with two white lion cubs, who he tracked and observed, later writing about the experience in his book. His book also details how the animals were transferred to Johannesburg zoo for a breeding program, a program which resulted in the white lions seen in zoo’s across the world, today.

White and tawny lion drinking

A tawny lion and a white lion, side by side. Image by Chad Cocking.

What is a White Lion?

A white lion is not an albino version of the species Panthera leo krugeri (Tawny African Lion), but rather a rare genetic mutation, referred to as “leucistic”, that limits pigmentation. They are differentiated from other albino versions of tigers, deer, alligators, and even hedgehogs, by their lack of ‘pink eyes’, which may instead be the normal hazel or golden colour, blue-gray, or green-gray, as well as having pigment in their paw pads and lips. The amount of pigment in the hair of white lions also varies form individual to individual, hence a range of White lions from blonde to near-white. They are yet to be sub-classified as their own species, as more than White Lion one variant has been discovered – including a male spotted hundreds of miles away in the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game Reserve near the KwaZulu Natal coast.

white lioness and white lion cubs in dry grass

A mother lioness, whose recessive white gene was passed down to her cubs.

Where can I see a White Lion in the wild?

Sighting White Lions in the wild is a special treat reserved only for a lucky few. Whilst some 400 exist in captivity following breeding programs, those in the wild remain on the endangered species list. Efforts to re-introduce captive bred white lions into the wild have met with limited success. The prides of the Timbavati area carry the gene but knowing just which tawny males and females are capable of producing a white lion is very difficult and depends on a variation of breeding possibilities involving a mating pair both carrying the recessive gene. That said, white cubs were born in the Timbavati Private Nature Reserve in 2006, 2008, 2009, 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2019 and in the Nwanetsi Area of Kruger National Park in 2014 and 2015, confirming that white lions are a natural occurrence and the recessive gene is still present in the wild population. To date, white lions can be seen on safari in the Timbavati area and at Singita Lebombo in the Nwanetsi Area of Kruger National Park.

Want to see a white lion in the wild? Check out our Classic South Africa itinerary and travel to the best place possible to see them!

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