Over time, Predators across the globe have evolved to develop unique displays of camouflage to successfully stalk their prey. Tigers have developed stripes and move with stealth in long grass. Leopards have spots as they hunt in the dappled shadows of leaves. Lions, the majestic Kings of the African bush, are golden and tawny in colour, blending into the dry dusty earth and short grass.
Every so often, nature creates something remarkable and completely unique.
For centuries there were rumours of white lions, as white as polar bears, appearing naturally in the African bush. It was only in 1975 that this elusive rarity became a documented fact – and only a few kilometres from Tanda Tula Safari Camp.
What is a white lion?
A white lion is a normal healthy lion which displays the effects of a recessive gene known as the chinchilla or color inhibitor. The condition displayed is known as “leucism’ and is distinct from albinism. They are not albinos and have normal eyes. In fact, white lions are born from tawny parents – ‘normal’ lions – who carry the recessive white lion gene.
In October of 1975 Chris McBride, an avid wildlife enthusiast, made an amazing discovery when he found the first known naturally occurring white lions in the Timbavati Private Nature Reserve. This sighting was made whilst he was tracking and studying a particular pride of lions as part of the fieldwork requirement of his Masters’ Degree in Wildlife Management. From that historical moment forth, white lions have become synonymous with the Timbavati Private Nature Reserve, which is one of the very few regions on the globe where these lions occur naturally.
Chris McBride spent several years studying the Machaton pride and discovered the white lions by complete chance. These cubs were located a mere 8km (5 miles) from the original Tanda Tula Safari Camp. Chris’s discovery caused a stir amongst wildlife enthusiasts and was considered nothing short of remarkable.
A few months earlier, Chris had been tracking the Machaton pride and was one day fortunate enough to witness and document two members of the Machaton pride, Agamemnon and Tabby, mating in the Timbavati. What Chris didn’t know at the time was that he was actually witnessing one of nature’s special events, the very conception of the white lion cubs, as Tabby went on to give birth to Temba and Tombi a few months later.
For many months after Temba and Tombi were discovered it was believed that these two cubs were a unique and a once-off occurrence. Until one day, in August 1976 when Chris had been working at Tanda Tula Safari Camp, he discovered another pure white lion, born to a different lioness. The white lion cub was six months old when Chris first made the sighting and once again the world took notice.
Do white lions still occur naturally?
As is evident from the current existence of three white lions in the Timbavati Private Nature Reserve, white lions do indeed occur naturally, without the interventions of humans through breeding programs.
In 1977 McBride released a book titled ‘The White Lions of the Timbavati’ where he captured the discovery of these magnificent animals whose genetics challenged the norms of nature and evolution. In the final sentence of the preface of this book it is written, ‘’So it looks as if the story of the white lions of Timbavati is only just beginning’’. How true those words are, as over the years numerous white lions have continued to be sited in the Timbavati Private Nature Reserve, much to the excitement of wildlife enthusiasts around the world.
The three white lions which can be seen in the Timbavati area today are from two different prides, one from the Giraffe pride and two from the Shakubasa pride. Although they remain to be an extremely rare occurrence, we can expect more cubs to appear in the Timbavati and surrounding reserves, which form part of the Greater Kruger National Park. At times, guests of Tanda Tula Safari Camp are fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of these remarkable animals. Each sighting is a breathtaking experience, and we are all truly fortunate to be able to witness these extraordinary creatures in their natural habitat.
White Lions, like all wildlife, are immensely valuable to our ecosystems. It is only through conservation of our delicate ecology that we may preserve the environment that supports the continued beauty of the African wilderness. Through education and preservation we can ensure that future generations will have examples of nature’s marvels, such as the white lion, to behold.