21 'Most Asked' Questions
About White Lions Answered!
Q & A With Jason Turner, Senior Scientific
Advisor And Lion Ecologist Of The
Global White Lion Protection Trust
Turner: 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.
Turner: 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.
Turner: 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 1970’s) 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.
Turner: 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 fact, members of our scientific monitoring team have reported that the telemetry equipment used to track the white lions in the wild has often indicated that they are within a 20 meter radius and yet they cannot be seen with the naked eye. Of course in sparsely vegetated areas like the Karoo or the lush green grasslands of Natal (where they are not in their natural environment) they are more conspicuous. 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 and hence hair colouration is less significant than it would be in diurnal or solitary predators. Our research indicates that White Lions were often dominant in their prides in the wild, successfully raising litters and leading hunting expeditions. There are records of them hunting and providing for their tawny prides. Moreover, our own scientific monitoring team recorded more than 95 kills within our founding pride's first year of release in the wild. Significantly, the founding pride did not require a wild tawny pride to teach them how to hunt.
Turner: 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, that 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 (Panthera leo) can be used to hunt a White Lion. Since there are currently no White Lions in the wild in their endemic range, White Lions are critically endangered. Any White Lions born or reintroduced to the wild are not protected.
Turner: 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. For instance, similar to the White Lion, the lion populations living in west and central Africa could possibly be characterized as ‘critically endangered’. But, because their status as a separate lion 'subspecies' is unclear, their need for protection has not been officially recognized.The subspeciation 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.
After five years, we are at a fairly early stage of our research, but there is a fair amount of evidence - as well as precedents set by groups working with other species - to indicate that White Lions should be classified as a subspecies. By way of example, the lions of the Sabie Sands region (in the Greater KNP) have been recognized as one of four uniquely defined lion groups in Africa. Because the Timbavati and central / southern Kruger Park, generally speaking, have a similar geography, vegetation, geology, fauna and flora, and history compared to the Sabie Sands region - and the lions in this region would most probably fall in the same lion group – the White Lion could therefore, also receive a unique protective status.
Turner: 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 Shangaan people - the White Lion must be protected. To date the genetic marker for the White Lion has not been determined. The Trust has, therefore, embarked on ground-breaking research to identify the genetic marker. Our scientific team is doing so through the process of DNA analysis, in collaboration with genetic specialists from Swansea University in Wales.
Turner: This research will be used to classify the White Lion 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 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.
Turner: Our research objectives are in complete accordance with those of the IUCN: i) we aim to restore the natural biodiversity of the area; ii) we aim to enhance the long-term survival of a species; iii) we aim to provide long-term economic benefits to the local community; iv) we aim to re-establish a key-stone species in both the ecological and cultural sense; and v) we aim to promote conservation awareness.
Turner: 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 rainforests 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).
Turner: 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 utilizes pedigreed White Lions - meaning that they are of the highest genetic integrity - whose lineage is directly traceable to Timbavati. A pride of un-imprinted White Lions have been successfully reintroduced to the semi free-roaming conditions on the 1000 hectare control area of the Trust's founding property in the Greater Timbavati. They are now hunting for themselves and are completely self-sufficient.
Turner: 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 1000 hectare control 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.In order to completely introduce White Lions back into the wild, and to ensure genetic diversity, the 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.
Turner: 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.
Turner: 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. Our monitoring team is focused now on the survival of Marah's sub-adult offspring, who were taught their hunting techniques by their mother. We are pleased to report that they have hunted successfully on their own, killing prey as large as adult wildebeest. The vitally important scientific reintroduction is continuing as planned. The lions' natural prey base is increased when necessary and a new blood line of genetic pedigree is now being introduced.
Turner: In May, 2006 two White Lion cubs were born - amidst tawny cubs - in the Umbabat Private Nature Reserve (neighbouring Timbavati). 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 - 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. 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 are carrying the white gene there would be 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.
Turner: 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 and the lion culling in the KNP in the 1970s, 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 no white lions in the wild within their natural distribution range, except for those in our project, whom are semi-free roaming in a 1000 hectare control area.
Turner: 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.
Turner: 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. The founder White Lion pride already interacts with other tawny lions at the electrified boundary fences between the primary reintroduction area and the neighbouring private nature reserves, showing natural territorial behaviour. The next step in the carefully phased long-term Reintroduction Programme is to bond the White Lions with two wild tawny females from the region. These wild females have been 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.
Turner: 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 km²) 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 1970’s. 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.
Turner: 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 not only because of their conservation value but, 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 Trust is formally collaborating with the South African Government at local, regional and national levels to refine legislation to protect the White Lions. After many years of campaigning for their protection - and submitting more than 10 000 hand-written petitions and letters of support calling for their protection - the South African Government has undertaken to re-draft pertinent legislation accordingly.
Click Here: Visit the Global White Lion Protection Trust Web Site
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