Enviro Perspectives on The White Lion Trust

© Shem Compion

We have been fortunate enough to experience two white lion events in our region within a single year, the first two cubs born to a normal tawny female in the Umbabat Private Nature Reserve and the second two white cubs and two tawny cubs born to a tawny female in the Timbavati Private Nature Reserve (TPNR), proof enough that the white lion gene is alive and well within our region despite all claims to the contrary.

Unfortunately there are those who cannot accept and appreciate these natural occurrences for what they are, but are always trying to use incidents such as these for ulterior motives. To clear up some misconceptions about white lions, the following needs to be considered.

Firstly wild white lions are not only restricted to the Associated Private Nature Reserves (APNR) of which both Timbavati and Umbabat are both members, but have been seen in the Kruger National Park (KNP) from points as far removed as Talamati, the Lindanda Flats and Crocodile Bridge all within a time frame of five years.

It is possible that the Crocodile Bridge and Lindanda Flats animal were one and the same as the Lindanda Flats animal was a male cub that could have migrated down to the Crocodile Bridge area as he became mature. The Talamati animal was a female resident in a pride that had other light coloured individuals in it.

When one considers the expanse of the Kruger National Park and accepts that there are large areas that are very rarely visited by people then one must accept that there could be other such incidents which are not recorded.

Hunting has been named as the main threat to the recurrence of the white lion gene. This is incorrect as when the first white lions were made known to the world by Chris McBride lions were being hunted on private land surrounding the Kruger National Park and had been heavily culled in certain sections of the park itself.

In fact 335 lions were removed from the central district of the KNP over the period December 1974 to early 1978 when a moratorium was placed on the culling of lions in Kruger. The hunting of lions on private land outside of the KNP, including in and around the Timbavati and Umbabat Reserves, is demonstrated by the fact that a meeting was held between representatives of the Timbavati and the nature conservation authorities about the large numbers of lions shot (28) by farms bordering on the TPNR. Some of the cattle farms adjoining the TPNR were shooting a lion a month in the 1970s.

In essence, to cite hunting as a threat to the existence of the current white lions to my way of thinking, based on the above, is a little far fetched as the McBride white lions made history when the lion population was under strain from hunting in one form or another to a far greater extent than is the case at present - on average one lion is shot in the Associated Private Nature Reserves per year. The Global White Lion Protection Trust made a recent disclaimer to the television programme screened on Animal Planet regarding the Timbavati white lions and the role Chris McBride played therein.

Amongst other things the White Lion Trust states, "The only documented origins of the white lions are in the area of South Africa known as the Greater Timbavati region and, according to our ongoing research; their extinction in this endemic habitat was due to trophy hunting by Europeans, as well as artificial removals into captive conditions for gross commercial gain." Herein too are a number of vagrancies. Firstly it is arrogant, to say the least, to say that the central and southern parts of the Kruger National Park are part of the Greater Timbavati.

After all wild white lions have been recorded there as well. Secondly the lions are not extinct in the APNR as claimed by the above mentioned disclaimer ("the white lions have been extinct in the wild since 1994").

In fact two incidents have occurred within the space of a year without any assistance of the White Lion Trust or anybody else for that matter, proof enough that the white lion gene is still present in the population despite hunting and captive breeding attempts.

The White Lion Trust also cite hunting as the main threat to the white lions and cite the lion shot in the Umbabat in March 2006 as being the sire of the only white lion cubs to be born in the wild since 1994. (They also conveniently include the Umbabat in the Timbavati). "However we advised that due to trophy hunting of the likely father of these cubs shortly before (March 2006), we feared for their survival.

Unfortunately our worst fears now seem to have been realised as the cubs have not been seen again." It is obvious that the hunted lion was unlikely to have been the sire as the second litter of white cubs was born in September/October and the gestation period for a lion is 110 days, work out the maths!

Secondly the hunting of a male lion will only affect the cubs if the removal or weakening of a coalition results in a take-over by another male/coalition of males. None of the above occurred so there is no reason for the white cub's lack of appearance to be placed at the door of the hunting incident.

In fact the lack of game and excessive competition from other lions and hyenas for a limited food supply is more likely. The White Lion Trust in their disclaimer go to great lengths to discredit the captive breeding of lions, specifically for the hunting industry and are vehement in their opposition of the hunting of canned lions.

While many of us will agree that the hunting of a captive bred lion in a small enclosure without a chance to escape and in the immediate proximity of her cubs (as dramatised on television) is anything but acceptable, but it can be argued that the White Lion Trust are doing the exact same thing.

They too have "caged" lions in a small camp (300 hectares) and have not or did not comply with the required regulations to introduce the lions onto their "sanctuary" or have the necessary permits to import the dozens of wildebeest completely naïve to predation to feed them.

It is also known and well documented that the reintroduction of captive bred or hand reared lions into their natural habitat is not really feasible and normally ends in disaster, normally to the lions, but only after they have resulted in a number of wild lions being killed and a number of people being mauled. In fact, when the White Lion Trust first had their public participation meeting in the Hoedspruit area they stated that they intended to remove a wild pride out of their territory in order to supplant them with their white lion pride, a fact that they now conveniently forget.

It would be interesting to known what they intended to do with the pride they were going to displace. It can be argued that the saving of the "white lions" and their reintroduction into "their endemic home" is nothing more than the personal aspirations of individuals, for whatever reasons, and they are now using emotion to misguide public opinion to achieve this goal and it really doesn't have much to do with conservation at all, in fact it can be to the detriment of lion conservation.

The White Lion Trust goes on to say in their disclaimer that they have, "called upon the South African government to have the white lions declared a national treasure and listed on the Schedule of Threatened and Protected Animals of National Importance, and on the IUCN's Red Data List as critically endangered." This shows an absolute misunderstanding of the status of white lions or any other mutant for that matter.

The captive breeding of white lions (as is being practiced by the White Lion Trust amongst others) equates to the captive breeding of black as well as white springbok or white blesbok or king cheetahs for that matter. They are all mutants and only occur sporadically in nature at a very low incidence.

They are in fact freaks and by selectively breeding for these attributes one is in fact weakening the genetic composition of the species. The appearance and function of wild animals is a product of their genes and their environment over time. A lion is tawny because time has shown that a tawny coloured lion is best suited to its environment.

This has developed over millennia and this is why polar bears are white while most others are brown and black, this is also why snow leopards are white and snow rabbits and snow owls take on a white plumage in winter. It is a product of the environment they live in that has become imprinted in their genetic makeup.

To now want to increase the incidence of this mutation occurring by selectively breeding for such attributes would be to the detriment of the species concerned and would in all likelihood increase the species' chances of extinction as their genetic viability is weakened due to the manipulation of a recessive gene.

By continually selecting for a recessive gene such as a white coloured lion one would be practising in-breeding as one would be selecting for a select trait only found in a few select individuals. It is well known and documented that inbreeding results in the weakening of the genetic pool and often leads to physical abnormalities. Is this what we want for our lion population? I would think not!

Personal agendas and economic gain aside, can it not be accepted that a mutation is a natural occurrence that occurs from time to time in many species and sometimes this manifestation is dramatic and unique and results in an individual such as a white lion or a king cheetah.

Let us appreciate these for what they are and be awed by the amazing diversity of nature that we understand so little about. Let us enjoy them while they are manifested from time to time and protect the genetic diversity that makes such occurrences happen rather than try and manipulate populations to ensure the continued manifestation.

Just because the genes are not continually being manifested does not mean that they are not present in a population. Any statistician/geneticist will tell you that the likelihood of such mutations occurring naturally is very, very slight. The fact that it occurs on a regular basis within the APNR could in itself be an unnatural situation indicating a large degree of inter-relatedness of the lion population of this area.

with Errol Pietersen

Kruger National Park - South African Safari