Ever seen a white tiger? How about a white lion? Like the creamy Spirit Bear, which is really a pale black bear, or the rare white giraffe – sighted a few years ago in Tanzania’s Tarangire National Park – white tigers and lions are not albinos, but unusual genetic anomalies. Just as the Spirit Bear is found only on the remote central coast of British Columbia, the white lion is native only to the Timbavati region of South Africa’s Kruger National Park.
The unique white lion gene is carried by certain of the tawny-colored lions in the region, and white cubs have occurred in numerous prides in the area. The earliest recorded sighting of white lions in the Timbavati region was in 1938. However, the oral records of African elders indicate that these unique animals survived in this region for many centuries.
White lions have a number of features that distinguish them from true albinos: as do white tigers, they typically have blue eyes (regular lions’ eyes are gold), due to a recessive gene that is similar to that which produces blue eyes in humans. They also have black features on the tip of their noses as well as “eye-lining” and dark patches behind their ears. By contrast, albino lions, which lack pigmentation, have a characteristic pink or red coloration to their features.
While the white Spirit Bear still thrives in the remote coastal wilderness of British Columbia, the last recorded wild white tiger was shot in 1958, and white lions are essentially gone from the wild. Most were removed from their native habitats in the 1970s to establish captive breeding and hunting operations. According to the Global White Lion Protection Trust, these operations, as well as zoos, specifically bred white lions because of their rarity and exploited them for financial gain. Along with these removals, lion culling in the Kruger National Park in the 1970s and trophy hunting of male lions in the Timbavati have depleted the gene pool. The result has been a great decline in the frequency of occurrence of the white lion, and a technical extinction in the wild for the last 12 years.
The Global White Lion Protection Trust is seeking to re-establish white lions within their natural distribution range in the way they once occurred naturally. For more on white lions and the Trust, visit the organization’s website.
Wendy Worrall Redal.