In my years of travelling across Southern and Eastern Africa, I have been privileged to witness some of the most incredible sights – the annual wildebeest migration in the Serengeti and Maasai Mara for example, or the birth of an African elephant.
I now have another “lifer” to add to the list, and it is perhaps the most special, and incredible of all. At last I have seen the fabled white lions of the Timbavati, as documented decades ago by Chris McBride.
Now, at this point I have to say that I have been quite vociferous in my position on white lions and the gay abandon with which certain South African tourism operators have jumped on the white lion bandwagon.
Places like Sanbona in South Africa’s eastern Cape region have gone out of their way to breed white lions as tourist attractions, purely, in my opinion, to make money out of them.
Sadly they are not alone and breeding white lions for tourism purposes is mirrored by other, even more unscrupulous operators breeding them for canned hunting purposes, offering hand-reared white lions used to human contact up to wealthy fools to come to my beloved Rainbow Nation and shoot them after “hunting” them.
But, for now at least, back to the “real” white lions. The ones thrown out as a genetic aberration by nature herself in the Timbavati private game reserve in South Africa.
The two 19-month old females I saw while staying at Motswari Private Game Reserve just before Christmas were healthy and fat, and part of a small pride presided over by two tawny adult females.
Apparently, since the birth of the white cubs, the females have fended off advances from marauding males with gusto and have helped the beautiful, pale coated and blue-eyed youngsters to reach sub-adulthood.
White lions are produced by leucism – a glitch in the genetic coding for colour which causes either a reduction in or complete lack of pigmentation cells thanks to a recessive allele.
Often confused with albinism, leucism does not produce the typical pink or reddish eyes associated with albinos. In fact, eye colour is hardly affected with leucism. And in the case of the white lions, their eyes are a startling blue.
Now Chris McBride, who, remember, “discovered” and first documented the white lions in the Timbavati, is of the opinion that the recessive allele in the lion gene pool in the area is probably a result of poor or dysfunctional pride structures.
This opinion doesn’t detract from the incredible beauty of the white lions, nor their health and ability to reach maturity, but it is an indication that something has gone wrong, genetically.
This is why I am so against the active breeding of animals which have, for want of a better phrase, a genetic gremlin. It just isn’t ethical to take something that nature threw up as a “fluke” and try to reproduce it so that tourists can “ooh and aah” about it. It’s like trying to breed Siamese twins for a freak show.
Obviously, out in the wilds of Africa, when nature throws a curve ball like this, there’s nothing to be said but “wow!” No one has “created” the white lions in the Timbavati, no one has gone in there and forced a white male onto a white female to get white cubs.
So the sighting of my first, NATURAL white lions at Motswari was incredibly special. These animals are the rarest of the rare and completely unique to the area they live in.
They are to be cherished and adored but not interfered with in any way shape or form. Studied? Yes. Used to create tourist attractions and hunting trophies? No. Definitely not.
There is so much in this world that is manufactured and fake. Africa’s last remaining wild places are the final frontiers of what makes our planet the amazing place that it is, and completely the way nature intended them to be.
It is up to us to respect this, and for me, the white lions of the Timbavati are a reminder of just how much we need to protect the Earth’s last outposts. And how tourists the world over need to truly understand what they are buying into when they go on safari.