White Lions Return To Lowveld

Two weeks ago the Global White Lion Protection Trust (GWLPT) translocated four white lions from Sanbona in the Western Cape to their new home bordering the Timbavati and the Greater Kruger National Park. The GWLPT is committed to protecting the white lion, as well as the indigenous knowledge that holds them sacred and strives to re-establish them in their endemic birthplace, following a strict scientific protocol. This is according to Linda Tucker, founder of the GWLPT and author of a book about the white lions, 'Mystery of the White Lions'.

The Department issued an import permit for the lions to be taken to a property of approximately 600ha, of which 280ha comprise lion 'sub-habitat'. The GWLPT purchased this property, which is located on the Guernsey road near the Timbavati, last November. The Trust plans to establish a heritage site for these white lions here.

Several conditions had to be met before a holding permit could be granted for the lions to stay in their new home. The GWLPT plans to rehabilitate the white lions on the Guernsey property prior to releasing them into Andover Provincial Nature Reserve. The Department stipulated that an agreement with Andover should be in place outlining the release of the lion when rehabilitated as proposed by the GWLTP, as well as a business plan to this effect. Turner says these conditions have been met.

According to a reliable source in the Department of Nature Conservation, the GWLTP was also requested to complete and hand in an EIA. The neighbouring landowners should also have been consulted about the project, and the department stipulated that the holding permit would be issued only if there were no letters of objection from neighbouring landowners. These have apparently not been forthcoming.

Turner says, however, that he has received several letters of approval of the project from landowners in the region. "At this stage the GWPT does not have a holding permit because the Provincial Department has been threatened with legal action from some neighbouring landowners and is taking the threat seriously," said Jason Turner, lion ecologist with the GWLPT, who is doing a masters degree on the impact of lion predation in the Timbavati under Prof J Bothma at the University of Pretoria.

Not having a holding permit means the GWLPT is keeping the lions illegally in their current location. According to Turner the Limpopo Department "did not at any stage notify the GWLTP that an EIA or feasibility study was necessary." "These will now be done as is required," he said. The new laws governing the sustainable management of large predators that are due to come into effect on July 25 require an EIA to be done if large predators are kept captive for species conservation. If the white lions are moved to Andover later in the year, an EIA may become necessary.

Turner identified the 280ha section on the bigger property where the white lion are being kept at present as an ideal 'subhabitat' for the integration and rehabilitation of the white lions to endemic conditions. This is the next phase of the carefully monitored reintroduction programme. Turner says the reintroduction programme is based on a protocol developed from successful lion reintroduction techniques employed on reserves such as Pilanesberg, Phinda, Madikwe, Welgevonden, and Hluhluwe.

The lions will be kept in a holding boma adjacent to a second boma where two tawny lions will be kept, allowing them to bond with the white group before both groups are set free together on the bigger area. Tucker says the group will then be carefully monitored and released on the 12000ha Andover Provincial Reserve, as stipulated in the management plan, when ready.

"The GWLPT's commitment to conservation through sustainable development and community upliftment led them to secure an agreement with the Mnisi Tribal Authority," says Tucker. It is here that the lion will finally be set free to roam the wild once they have been rehabilitated says Turner. According to Tucker, the Mnisis are claimants on the Andover Provincial Game Reserve, which borders communal land and is situated close to the Orpen Gate of the Kruger National Park and some 38km from the GWPT rehabilitation property.

"Taking its cue and guidance from African elders the GWLPT is committed to the protection of the white lions, and the indigenous systems, which holds these lions sacred. The GWLPT ultimately hopes to have them protected as this country's 'national treasure'," says Tucker. "Returning the white lions to the Timbavati region is their birthright, we owe it to them - it's our chance to restore the balance of nature."

Says Tucker:  "According to African tradition, it is sacrilege to so much as harm a white lion. Yet these majestic creatures were not protected by the previous government. They were artificially removed from the wilds of Timbavati into canned hunting and captive breeding operations in South Africa, and exported to zoos and circuses around the globe."

"According to traditional belief, lions and land claim issues are closely related, because the King of the Beasts is also understood to be the 'guardian' of the land. This makes the already heated issued of land claims and lion hunting in the region all the more sensitive," says Tucker. At present the land is managed by Parks and Gaming Limpopo, which is under the auspices of the Limpopo Department of Economic Development and Tourism headed by MEC Collins Chabane.

Not all the neighbours are equally excited about the re-introduction. Thornybush Game Reserve lodged a formal complaint on March 3, with Dr Rampedi of the Limpopo Provincial Government about the import of the white lion. The Timbavati Private Nature Reserve (TPNR) "consider the release of lion on a 280ha property inappropriate in terms of the DEAT draft rules and regulation on sustainable use of large predators."

They specifically refer to the regulations regarding the suitable habitat needed to accommodate a viable group, the need for an EIA and the fact that no comment from adjacent landowners was called for by the GWLPT of their own accord. Dr Freek Venter, head of Nature Conservation in KNP said Dr Gus Mills, specialist on carnivore conservation, has serious misgivings over the introduction of these animals into the greater Kruger Park ecosystem for a number of reasons:

"The 3.5 year old white lioness and her cubs are almost certainly inbred as they have been selectively bred in captivity for a number of years. In his proposal Mr Turner admits that "Since the forced removal of white lions from this region, they have been kept in captivity and in most instances inbred to guarantee white offspring." The introduction of inbred animals into the system can only have detrimental effects.

"Even if the lions to be introduced were not inbred, white lions did not only occur in the Timbavati area. As recently as 1992 a white lion male was regularly seen between Tshokwane and south of the Sabie River in the Kruger National Park (Annual Reports KNP 1990/1991 and 1991/1992).

Furthermore, Turner maintains that his observations in the Timbavati region indicate that "certain tawny lions in this area are still carrying the white lion gene." The genes are therefore still entrenched in the area. Given this we do not see the necessity for, as Mr Turner puts it, "the bloodline to be strengthened." White lions will in all probability reappear in the system in time, but it is likely that these individuals have a disadvantage over normal tawny lions and tend to be selected out, thus making their occurrence in the population a rarity.

"The disruption to established prides and/or to the artificial introduced pride that must occur should this project be implemented is not justified given the above."

By Lynette Strauss

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Kruger National Park - South African Safari