In an attempt to 'set the record straight' and allay rumours about the re-establishment of the white lions in the Timbavati region, the Global White Lion Protection Trust (GWLPT) convened a public meeting on Saturday April 2 at Jos Macs near Hoedspruit. More than 50 people attended the meeting chaired by Darren Bergman, Democratic Alliance member at the City of Johannesburg and serving on the committees for public safety, municipal awareness and town planning tribunal.
Bergman's interest in the project stems from the time the female lion, Marah, was kept at the Johannesburg Zoo and was the focal point of a court case with Free State farmer Marius Prinsloo. It was at this time that Linda Tucker bought the lion from the zoo. Bergman read several letters of approval for and concern about the project, the former outnumbering the latter.
Letters of support, signed by Ian Player, renowned South African conservationist, Mr Holomisa from Contralesa, Jerry Ngomane, presented as 'mayor of the Lowveld', Trevor Jordan, presented as a major landowner, Arno Kotze, neighbour to the Guernsey property and organisations like the United States based Core Light were presented.
Letters of concern read came from the Kruger National Park and the executive committee of Thornybush, the Timbavati Private Nature Reserve, and Rocco Gioia, all adjacent landowners to the Guernsey property where the lions will be kept initially. The panel fielding questions during the open discussions comprised Linda Tucker, founder of the GWLPT, Jason Turner, lion ecologist for the GWLPT and a trustee for the GWLPT who was also introduced as an African isangoma. Tucker asked that a special high backedchair be kept vacant at the front with the panel to symbolise the 'spirit of the white lion', similar to what the Sioux nation does when it convenes meetings, only there it is reserved for the spirit of the wolf.
The open discussion ranged from the size of the habitat, environmental impact assessment (EIA), the need for comments from adjacent landowners and land claims on Andover to the recessive gene in white lions, inbreeding, and fencing of the property where the lions are kept and will be released as well as the relevant permits.
Errol Petersen, consultant and acting as game warden at Umbabat Private Nature Reserve questioned the validity of releasing the white lion gene in the wild as it already exists naturally, and being a recessive gene will occur as nature dictates. "Why meddle with nature?" he asks.
Brian Jones of Moholoholo Rehabilitation Centre has his doubts about the probability of success of the project. In his experience, if a wild animal has been fed only once, it has become human-imprinted which makes re-introduction into the wild extremely difficult. "This is particularly true of carnivores," he told the Kruger Park Times later..
Dr Hym Ebedes, a wildlife vet formerly with the Pretoria Zoo, believes inbreeding would not be detrimental to the wellbeing of the general lion population. On the question of a lack of an EIA, Turner said he was never informed by the Limpopo Department of Economic Development, Environment and Tourism that it was necessary. He then indicated the GWLPT would now perform an EIA.
On the question of fencing of the 300ha sub-habitat on the Guernsey property where the lions will be kept during phase one of the re-habilitation process, Turner said a new fence had been erected to a higher standard than what the GWLPT had to comply with. John Ndlovu, acting as spokesperson for the Mnisi tribe and one of the claimant tribes on Andover where the lions are to be eventually released, said there are no lions on Andover and the GWLPT has an agreement in place with the Mnisis.
Eleck Minisi, another spokesperson for the Minisi tribe told the Kruger Times on Friday before the meeting, he does not know of any such agreement between the GWLPT and the Mnisi tribe. Another claimant on Andover questioned the GWLPT as to why they were not consulted. The GWLPT undertook to talk to this tribe as well.
At this point the sangoma enlightened the audience as to the cultural importance of the white lions and that many Africans regard it as sacred.
Tucker invited the sangoma to take the vacant lion's chair and allow the white lion's spirit to speak through her. Pieter Strauss then intervened and asked the chairman to return to the purpose of the meeting and why people convened there. He said many experts had made the effort to get together and the meeting should rather concentrate on hearing their opinions and to find a solution to the problem for the benefit of the lions.
On the matter of permits, he asked Turner if the GWLPT had a holding permit for the lions. Turner declined to answer on legal grounds. Bergman concluded the meeting saying it was conducted in good spirit and he believes everything possible should be done in the best interest of the white lion.