21 ‘Most Asked’ Questions About White Lions Answered!
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1.) Are the White Lions albino lions?
No, they are not. In 1997 a study by Cruickshank & Robinson determined conclusively that White Lions are not albinos. They have blue or gold colouration in their eyes, black features on the tip of their noses as well as "eye-lining" and, dark patches behind their ears ("follow-me signs"). By contrast, albino lions, which lack pigmentation, have a characteristic pink or red colouration to their features. White colouration in White Lions is similar to blue eyes in humans, which is similarly due to a recessive gene.
2.) Where do the White Lions originate from?
The White Lions were once a natural occurrence in a specific distribution range in South Africa: the Greater Timbavati and southern Kruger Park region. White Lions made a significant contribution to the biodiversity of that region. Studies have shown that White Lions survived successfully in their natural distribution range for at least 56 years - and in all likelihood, much longer.
3.) How did White Lions disappear from the Timbavati?
After they were "discovered" by Europeans in the 1970s, White Lions were artificially removed from the wild to captive breeding and hunting operations. These captive 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 (especially in the 1970s) and trophy hunting of pride male lions in the Timbavati have depleted the gene pool. This has contributed to the drastic decline in the frequency of occurrence of White Lions and ultimately a 12-year technical extinction in the wild.
4.) Their white colour stands out in the wild - can White Lions camouflage themselves in order to hunt for themselves?
Yes, studies show that White Lions are endemic to one place only on earth: the Greater Timbavati region in South Africa. This region is characterised by white sandy riverbeds and in the winter the long grass in this area is scorched pale. In this habitat they are very well camouflaged. In their natural habitat, the White Lions are "apex predators" - i.e. they have been recorded as hunting successfully during the day and at night, killing prey as large as giraffe. It is important to note that most lion prey animals are colour-blind and, therefore, the difference in sightability between tawny and white lions is not nearly so drastic. Also, lions hunt co-operatively in groups and mostly at night [Smuts 1982] and hence hair colouration is less significant than it would be in diurnal or solitary predators. Eye-witness reports indicate that White Lions were often dominant in their prides in the wild, successfully raising litters and leading hunting expeditions (Mario Cesare 2003). Moreover, our own scientific monitoring team recorded more than 95 kills within our founding pride's first year of release in the lions’ natural habitat. Significantly, the founding pride was an all white pride and did not require wild tawny lions to teach them how to hunt. Scientifically, the hunting success of the Trust's three groups of white lions was not significantly different to that of the wild tawny lions studied in the same study area (Turner & Vasicek under review 2013).
5.) Are the White Lions currently classified as an 'endangered species'?
No, they are not yet appropriately classified. Presently, the White Lions are listed as Panthera leo, under CITES Appendix II, and, therefore, fall under the classification of a "Vulnerable Species": i.e. “species that are not necessarily now threatened with extinction but, they may become so unless trade is closely controlled”. Appendix II means that White Lions or their derivatives (e.g. animal parts) can be sold, hunted and traded. In reality, every permit issued to hunt a lion can be used to hunt a White Lion. Since there are currently only 3 White Lions in the wild in their endemic range of Timbavati, they are critically endangered. Any White Lions born or reintroduced to the wild are not protected.
6.) Why are White Lions not classified as 'endangered' and officially protected if they are so rare in the wild?
White lions are not classified as a 'subspecies' of Panthera leo, and as such are not protected in the wild or in captivity. The lack of objectivity in lion classification means that there is no legislation that protects 'rare' and 'unique' lion groupings in certain regions [Barnett et al. 2006]. For instance, similar to the White Lion, the lion populations living in west and central Africa could possibly be characterised as ‘critically endangered’. But, because their status as a separate lion 'subspecies' [P. l. Senegalensis] is unclear, their need for protection has not been officially recognised [Nowell & Jackson 1996; Bauer & Van Der Merwe 2002].The sub-speciation issue today is highly controversial. There are “Lumpers” (scientists who believe in protecting the whole species only: i.e. lions are lions are lions) and “Splitters” (scientists who believe that sub-categorising helps to give specific protection). Although there is evidence to suggest that White Lions should be classified as a subspecies, this is after-all only a classification. While waiting for this elaborate scientific debate to resolve itself, these rare animals need urgent protection.
7.) Is there any 'evidence' indicating that White Lions can be classified as a subspecies?
A recent study refutes the hypothesis that African lions consist of a single panmictic population, and highlights the importance of preserving populations in decline rather than prioritising larger-scale conservation efforts [Antunes, et al. 2008]. Phylogenetic data and morphological divergence suggest there are at least four lion groups in Africa – the south-western populations, the populations to the east and west of the rift valley and the Sabi Sands population [Dubach, Patterson, Kays, et al. 2005. Christiansen, 2008]. The lion populations in west and central Africa could possibly be characterised as ‘critically endangered’; however, because their status as a separate lion subspecies Panthera leo senegalensis is unclear, the desperate status of their conservation situation has not been officially recognised [Nowell & Jackson 1996; Chardonnet 2002]. While taxonomic distinctions await further sampling for resolution on the sub-speciation issue, these populations define evolutionary significant units (ESU) [Dubach, Patterson, Kays, et al. 2005] as defined by Crandall et al. (2000 [Crandall, Mace & Wayne 2000] and accordingly need preserving for biodiversity conservation [Christiansen 2008]. Similarly, the white lion could be classified as a critically endangered subspecies or at least an evolutionary significant unit of Panthera leo that needs preserving. Alternatively, the White Lions may represent a unique characteristic of the Sabi Sands population, as White Lions have only ever been found within the greater Timbavati region, which borders, but is not separated from, the Sabi Sands Game Reserve. This could warrant for White Lions to be classified as a critically endangered regional polymorphism (variation) of Panthera leo or even of the possible Sabi Sands subspecies. Little is known about White Lions and scarcely any scientific studies have been done on White Lions in terms of our present day understanding and techniques [Robinson & De Vos. 1982; Cruickshank & Robinson 1997; McBride 1977 McBride 1981; Tucker 2003.] After two years, we are at a fairly early stage of our genetic research, but there are precedents set by groups working with other species (s.a Kermode Bear in Canada) to indicate that White Lions should be classified as a subspecies, or at least as being genetically distinct.
8.) What is the main focus of the Global White Lion Protection Trust?
The primary aim of the Global White Lion Protection Trust (WLT) is to re-establish White Lions within their natural distribution range in the way they once occurred naturally. This is done in strict accordance with current conservation principles. The Trust takes a holistic approach: in conserving the White Lion as an 'apex predator': we first conserve its prey, but to conserve the prey species we have to protect their habitat, and in order to protect the habitat we involve and include the people that share that habitat. As a unique contribution to the biodiversity of the Greater Timbavati region - and as an animal that is revered by the indigenous people of the region - the White Lion must be protected. The genetic marker for the White Lion has now been determined in a ground-breaking collaborative study with international geneticists. This will be used to motivate classification of white lions as critically endangered by CITES, as a capstone animal for protecting the Kruger to Canyon Biosphere.
9.) Once the genetic marker is known, how can this research protect the White Lions?
This research will be used to classify the White Lion as genetically distinct, either as a "critically endangered subspecies / regional polymorphism (variant)" of Panthera leo that occurs in a specific geographic range, according to the criteria for the IUCN Red Data List and CITES Appendix I or III listing. This unique genotype of Panthera leo needs to be preserved, and the phenotype restored within its natural distribution range. Trophy hunting still takes place in the White Lions’ natural distribution range and the captive breeding in canned hunting operations has put the genetic pool under duress. The Trust's Scientific Research Centre aims to acquire key individual White Lions of the highest genetic integrity to participate in the genetic research and preservation program. The Trust has presented the White Lion Protection Plan™ to the South African Government [The Select Committee on Land and Environmental Affairs - a Committee of the National Council of Provinces] in February 2008. The outcome was extremely positive, with the Committee resolving to support the Trust's conservation efforts. A copy of the parliamentary presentation is available on www.pmg.org.za. The genetic research process provides a necessary foundation to have the White Lions listed on the Schedule of Threatened and Protected Animals of National Importance.
10.) How do the Trust's objectives fit into those of the IUCN?
Our research objectives are in complete accordance with those of the IUCN:
- we aim to restore the natural biodiversity of the area;
- we aim to enhance the long-term survival of a species;
- we aim to provide long-term economic benefits to the local community;
- we aim to re-establish a key-stone species in both the ecological and cultural sense; and
- we aim to promote conservation awareness.
11.) You indicated that the Global White Lion Protection Trust is following precedents to classify the White Lions. Can you elaborate?
One important example is the global precedent set by a scientific team working in British Columbia (Canada) with the so-called "Spirit Bear" (a.k.a. the Kermode Bear). Similar to the White Lion, the Spirit Bear is a unique genetic variant of the Black Bear (Ursus americanus), and occurs in only one place in the world, the temperate rain forests of British-Columbia. Also similar to the White Lion, the white coat of the Spirit Bear is believed to be the result of a double recessive allele. The Spirit Bear has been classified as a 'sub-species' (Ursus americanus kermodei). Since the mode of genetic inheritance is similar to that of the White Lions, indications are that the White Lions will also be classified as a 'sub-species' of (Panthera leo).
12.) What evidence exists to show that the Global White Lion Protection Trust's 'Scientific Reintroduction Project' has been successful?
The aim of the Reintroduction Programme is to reintroduce White Lions back to the wild in their natural distribution range in the Greater Timbavati. Our reintroduction protocol was developed over the past seven years with input from experts and specialists in numerous fields. The Trust's Reintroduction Programme utilises pedigreed White Lions - meaning that they are of the highest genetic integrity - whose lineage is directly traceable to Timbavati. By 2013 three prides of un-imprinted White Lions had been successfully reintroduced to the free-roaming conditions on the Trust's 2000 hectare wildlife area in the natural habitat of the white lions of Greater Timbavati, and were hunting self-sufficiently. Two of the white lion groups were then successfully integrated with wild tawny lions, since white lions were naturally born to tawny prides.
13.) Some say the White Lions in your Reintroduction project are being 'bred in captivity' because the lions are kept in cages. Is this true?
No, the White Lions participating in our project are not kept in cages. This would oppose everything our project stands for. The White Lions in our Reintroduction Programme have been reintroduced to semi free-roaming conditions in a 2000 ha wildlife area in their natural endemic habitat in the wild. The Reintroduction Programme is in line with current strategies for lion conservation that follow the 'meta-population' management approach. This approach is already in use in southern Africa [Nowell & Jackson 1996; Barnett et al. 2006]. In order to completely introduce White Lions back into the wild, and to ensure genetic diversity, the White Lion Trust aims to establish and manage a number of separate sub-populations before reintegrating the White Lions with resident tawny prides within their core distribution area of the Greater Timbavati region. The only time the Trust's White Lions are temporarily held in an enclosed area or boma, is for the standard acclimation period when introducing lions to a new area or when bonding the White Lions with wild tawny lions prior to reintroduction. We follow the IUCN’s (World Conservation Union) ‘soft release’ approach and in this way the White Lions are being progressively introduced to larger sized wildlife areas within their natural distribution range.
14.) How do you monitor the progress of the White Lions in your Reintroduction Project?
Our scientific monitoring team monitors and records the behavioural and predation patterns of the White Lions in the Reintroduction Programme three times a day during their peak activity periods. The lions are radio-collared so as to track them whilst hunting. The lions are never approached on foot. We have a strict scientific protocol and any visitor to the project must be accompanied by a member of the monitoring team. The cubs are raised by their mother, and are never approached or touched. We are completely opposed to the concept of 'lion petting', as human imprinted lions cannot be easily reintroduced to free-roaming conditions.
15.) Can one expect any casualties in your Reintroduction Programme?
With the risks involved in hunting in the wild, lion mortality is high - 80% of lion cubs do not survive to become adults. White Lions have to face these odds over and above all the dangers which humans pose for them. The tragic death of our founding lioness, Marah has highlighted the critical nature of White Lion conservation. Following a year of superb performance in the wild (with more than 95 recorded kills, for which she was primarily responsible), she died while hunting for her cubs. Marah's offspring have survived to adulthood and her daughter has now raised her own offspring to hunt successfully in their natural habitat. We are pleased to report that 3 groups of white lions have now been successfully introduced, hunting successfully on their own, killing prey as large as adult kudu and eland. The vitally important scientific reintroduction is continuing as planned. The lions' natural prey base is increased when necessary and 2 new blood lines of highest genetic pedigree were introduced.
16.) When were White Lions last spotted being born wild in the Timbavati region? Can any lion produce white offspring?
In May, 2006 two White Lion cubs were born - amidst tawny cubs - in the Umbabat Private Nature Reserve (neighbouring Timbavati). In October 2006, another 2 cubs were born at Tabby's Crossing in the Timbavati Reserve. Unfortunately, none of the white cubs - or their tawny siblings - survived. At the best of times, the survival rate of lion cubs to adulthood is only 20%. Trophy hunting in the region made it even less likely that the cubs would survive, One of the two dominant male lions of both prides that gave birth to the white cubs was trophy hunted [Reported in Sunday Independent May 28th 2006]. This increased the likelihood that a nomadic coalition killed the cubs. Only lions that are white or are carrying the rare white lion gene can produce white offspring. Both parents need to be carrying the gene to ensure the possibility that some of the offspring will be white. According to Mendel’s principles of gene inheritance: (i) if both parents are tawny and carrying the white gene they have a 25% chance of having white cubs, (ii) if one parent is white and the other is tawny but carries the white gene, there is a 50% chance of white cubs, and (iii) if both parents are white, 100% of the offspring will be white. In 2008, three white cubs were born to the White Lion Trust project and since that time, 8 more white cubs (from 3 different prides) have been spotted on neighbouring reserves of Timbavati and Umbabat. Only time will tell whether the management policies (especially regarding hunting and eco-tourism impact) in these reserves will allow these cubs a fair chance of survival.
17.) When were White Lions first spotted in the wild and how many are there world-wide?
They were first spotted by a European witness in 1938 and documented in the 1970s, although African records indicate they were resident in this region for a much longer period. There were 12 recorded births in 9 prides in the Timbavati and Kruger National Park between 1975 and 1980. Due to the artificial removals in Timbavati [McBride 1981; Tucker 2001] and the lion culling in the KNP in the 1970s [Mills, Biggs & Whyte 1995], there were less than a handful of births from 1980 to 1993, and none from 1993 to 2006. It is hard to determine exactly how many White Lions there are today, because they are held in captive breeding and canned hunting operations which don’t keep adequate records. Based on available evidence, we estimate there are less than 300 White Lions world-wide. There are seven White Lions free-roaming in the WLT’s reintroduction project, with at least seven additional known births in surrounding reserves reported in the last two years.
18.) Has anyone else ever tried to reintroduce White Lions back into the wild?
Yes, there were two attempts made by the Timbavati themselves: the first was in the late 1980s and the second took place in 1993. Sadly, reintroduction techniques were not as sophisticated as they are today and the attempts failed. Since then, reintroductions have been increasingly proposed and practiced as a conservation strategy and method to return 'extirpated' populations to their former range.
19.) Will the White Lions in your project ever be in contact with other lions?
Yes they will. The Trust's ultimate goal is to once again integrate wild-born White Lions into the lion population within their natural distribution range. In this way the natural dynamics of their endemic region will be restored. Also, if successful, this will help validate the 'meta-population management' approach for lions in South Africa. As an important step in the carefully phased long-term Reintroduction Programme members of the founder White Lion pride have already been integrated with wild tawny lions within their natural habitat at the Tsau! Conservancy in the Greater Timbavati area. The pride interacts with other tawny lions at the electrified boundary fences between the Tsau! Conservancy and the neighbouring private nature reserves, showing natural territorial behaviour. These wild tawny lions were specifically identified as they originate from the Greater Timbavati region and will, therefore, not disturb the existing natural pride structures. At every stage, our procedure is to support the processes of nature and not to disturb them.
20.) What is your response to the purist scientific view that nature should take its own course?
In reality, there are very few ecosystems today that are not in some way managed. The Kruger National Park (KNP), in spite of its large size, (greater than 20 000 square km), is not an entirely self-contained system in nature. It is managed: i.e. vegetation is burnt on a rotational basis; species are trans-located to and from the KNP and an elephant culling programme is imminent. If indeed we were to follow pure conservation principles, we should acknowledge that i) White Lions once occurred naturally, ii) their frequency of occurrence had increased before they were artificially removed from the Timbavati and iii) their gene pool in the KNP was depleted by the lion culling program in the 1970s. Strictly speaking then, White Lions should rightfully be restored within their natural distribution range. White lions are a unique contribution to the biodiversity of the Greater Timbavati - KNP region, and they are revered by indigenous communities in the area. The balance was once disturbed through human intervention and we need to restore it.
21.) What are the 'critical next steps' to having the White Lions protected?
South African legislation pertaining to the management of large predators has to change drastically. Currently, White Lions are not protected by South African law because they are not classified appropriately on the Schedule of Threatened and Protected Animals of National Importance. White Lions are important because of their conservation value and also due to their cultural and eco-tourism value in the region. They hold enormous cultural and spiritual significance for the indigenous communities of the region. The white lion is a capstone animal for protecting the lion population in the Greater Kruger National Park, and the Kruger to Canyon Biosphere - 3rd largest canyon in the world. With the breakthrough discovery of the secret genetic code for the white lions in November 2012, the White Lion Trust now has the necessary evidence to prove that white lions are genetically distinct and therefore motivate that white lions be classified by CITES as a critically endangered subpopulation or subspecies of the African lion. The White Lion Trust is formally collaborating with the South African Government at national level to refine legislation to protect the White Lions.