White Lions of the Timbavati

White Lions in the Wild & New White Lion Cubs Born

The Timbavati region is famously known for its rare white lions and people travel from far and wide to try get a glimpse at these rare cats. A naturally occuring phenomenon, why are they 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 white lions seen in zoo’s across the world. The uncontrolled capture of white lions (including trophy hunting) has caused their extinction in the wild. It is because of the protection granted by the Kruger National Park and its surrounding private game reserves, that the remaining wild white lions are safe.

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 lion or version 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. So far, no albino lions have been reported in the wild. 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 classified as a sub-species, as more than one white lion 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 outside of a zoo is a special treat and a stroke of luck even for those of us who live in or by the Kruger National Park! Whilst some 400 exist in captivity following breeding programs, efforts to re-introduce captive bred white lions into the wild have met with limited success. Only a few prides in the Greater Kruger Area are now known to carry the gene. However, 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, wild white cubs were born in the Timbavati Private Nature Reserve in 2006, 2008, 2009, 2011, 2012, 2013 (West Kruger). Surprisingly, white lion cubs were also born to the Shishangaan pride in the Nwanetsi Area of the Kruger National Park in 2014 and 2015. Close to Singita Lebombo in the East of the Kruger, these cubs were born quite a long way away from the Timbavati. Whilst none of the Timbavati cubs survived, one Shishangaan white lion is still alive today. This male white lion (named Casper) continues to roam the wilderness with his three tawny brothers. They are now in control of two prides: Nsemani & Central prides around Satara. It remains to be seen if white cubs might be born again in Kruger's Nwanetsi area.

White cubs survival rates are often less than their tawny siblings (even tawny lion cubs only have a 50/50 chance of surviving their first year). This is mainly because their white coat offers less natural camouflage in the African bushveld, making them more vulnerable to predation by other predators, including unrelated male lions. And so, for several years, it seemed that the white lions of Timbavati were extinct yet again...

A new generation, but will it be enough?

That is, until 2018, when three new, wild white lion cubs were born to the Birmingham Pride. The pride's territory is mainly situated in the Ngala Private Game Reserve - located in the Timbavati region. Whilst these cubs were killed in a pride takeover from the intruding Ross males, three more white cubs were born the next year. Of these three, a male and female white lion have survived to adulthood. Whilst the white male lion (named Xakubasa) has now left the pride to establish his own territory with his three brothers, one of the white lionesses gave birth to a white lion cub herself in May of 2023. The newest white lion cub was also born to a tawny lioness in the Birmingham pride in September 2023, which has brought the total number of known, wild-born white lions to five at the time of writing (October 2023).

A white lioness from the birmingham pride in the wild kruger national park

The Birmingham pride white lioness, spotted with suckling marks! Wild Wonderful World safari, May 2023, near Kruger Orpen Gate. Credit Matthew Poole (Photowildsa)

The success of the Birmingham pride in raising two white lion cubs, one of which has now got her own white cub, confirms that white lions are a natural occurrence and that the recessive gene is still present in the wild population of the Kruger National Park. However, when the Ross males are ousted by competitors (as is bound to happen), will they be replaced by other males carrying the white gene? Will they succeed in finding a new pride with the white lion gene? And will the current two adult white males be able to mate with lionesses who share their recessive gene? Only time will tell...

Do you want to see a truly wild white lion? Check out our South Africa lookbook and travel to the best place possible to maximise your chances of spotting them!

Written by Michelle Pengilly and Evelyn Poole. Originally published December 2019. Updated October 2023.

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