A “World-First” Project
The ‘world-first’ White Lion reintroduction project has yielded extraordinary results both in terms of the scientific re-establishment of White Lions back in the wild as well as the cultural restoration of the principles of pride, unity and harmony within the communities that hold them sacred.
A Scientific Project
The White Lion is a genetic rarity of Panthera leo, which has occurred in one endemic region: the Timbavati region neighbouring South Africa’s Kruger National Park. After 13 years of technical extinction in the wild, the Global White Lion Protection Trust is campaigning for the protection of the White Lions nationally (the Schedule of Threatened and Protected Animals of National Significance) and internationally (CITES and IUCN Red Data listing), and has initiated a ‘world-first’ scientific re-introduction program to return the White Lions to their natural habitat in the wild and to supplement the White Lion gene in their natural distribution range.
On Freedom Day 2006, Sky News and Reuters International reported:
“…four White Lions taking their first steps back into the wild after their long walk to freedom – in a landmark conservation initiative which re-establishes free-roaming White Lions in their rightful birthplace.”
Current Status of White Lion Reintroduction – January 2008
Since their release into their natural distribution range in 2006, the founding pride has proven its ability to survive capably in free-roaming conditions. As at mid 2009, the lions have successfully embraced the next phase in the reintroduction project – integration with tawny lions.
Significantly, the pride did not need tawny lions to teach them how to hunt – a hypothesis often shared by several members of the scientific fraternity. In 2008 two tawny lionesses were donated to the project and integrated with the two male White Lions. Historically, White Lions occurred naturally in integrated prides. The scientific research team will continue to monitor any changes to the kill frequency, prey selection, hunting strategy, ranging patterns and behavior of the White Lion males now that they are part of an integrated pride.
Long Term Protection of White Lions
The latest National Norms and Standards for the Keeping and Hunting of Large Predators have been announced in South Africa. While the new regulations are stricter, there are still a number of loop-holes and, most importantly, they still do not protect White Lions from being hunted to extinction. The primary aim of the Global White Lion Protection Trust (WLT) remains to establish a subpopulation of White Lions integrated with wild tawny lions within their greater endemic range, thereby ensuring their long-term survival and protection. At the same time, the WLT aims to protect the indigenous culture and communities that hold the White Lions as sacred. The WLT is continuing to urge the Minister of the Environment to have the White Lion protected as an animal of national and cultural importance. Ultimately, the WLT aims to have White Lions listed for specific protection by CITES and the IUCN as a critically endangered variant or subpopulation of Panthera leo.
Status on Timbavati-Born White Lion Cubs
In May, 2006 two White Lion cubs were born – amidst tawny cubs – at Ingwelala in the Umbabat Private Nature Reserve. In October of the same year, another two cubs were born at Tabby’s Crossing in the Timbavati Private Nature Reserve.
Unfortunately, none of the white cubs (nor the tawny cubs) have survived. At the best of times, the survival rate of lion cubs to adulthood is only 20% (Bothma & Walker 1997). 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 (Sunday Independent May 7th). This increased the likelihood that one of the nomadic coalitions killed the cubs. It is commonly accepted that lion cubs are only killed by intruding, nomadic males after a pride takeover. This is not always the case. With the ‘Machaton’ pride in the Timbavati, five of their seven offspring were lost to the nomadic ‘Gijima Madoda’ pride without their pride actually being taken over.
Perspective on Hunting in the Timbavati
If an ethical and ecologically responsible hunting protocol is not enforced in the Umbabat and Timbavati Private Nature Reserves, the survival of any future White Lions (and evidently a number of the tawny offspring) will remain in serious jeopardy. These reserves are not ‘taking a purist hands-off’ approach or “letting nature take its course'; their hunting practices are causing a major disruption to the lion population dynamics and the balance of nature. Recently, the Timbavati postponed their latest lion hunt because, according to reliable sources, a suitable male lion could not be found. The 6-year old Machaton male was one of the lions ear-marked to be hunted – the only survivor of the seven Machaton offspring, five of which were killed by the Gijima Madoda pride. The Timbavati lodges are key stakeholders in the Timbavati Reserve and are, therefore, playing a vital role in trying to ensure that ethical and ecologically responsible hunting take place in their conservation area. We applaud their continued efforts.