There are some incredible sights to see across Southern and Eastern Africa. The annual wildebeest migration in the Serengeti and Maasai Mara for example. And one of these ‘lifer’/’bucket list moments is seeing the Timbavati white lions.

Maybe you’ve heard of these enchanting big cats, or have previously thought of them as being extinct or fantasized?

Conservation efforts and responsible tourism has set its hearts on protecting these lions. With the hopes that they once again stand a chance of thriving in their homelands.

Let’s take a look at what makes these creatures so spectacular, where you’ll find them, and their way of life in the plains of Africa.

Do White Lions Exist: Fantasy or Reality?

Female white lion and cubs walk past a big male giraffe

So, are white lions real? Yes, white lions are part of the African lion species that we are familiar with. The only difference between the two is that the white lion’s coat varies from a near-white to blonde, rather than an almost caramel color.

They’re extremely rare to come across because both parents need to possess this genetic mutation. And finding one white lion to breed with is tough enough. This is why some people may think that white lions don’t exist.

You can see the fabled white lions of the Timbavati, as documented decades ago by Chris McBride. And it is perhaps the most special, and incredible of all experiences.

Are white lions extinct?

For centuries tribes in Africa have deemed this animal sacred and allowed them to thrive in the wild. Hunting and global interest, however, led to their brief extinction in the wild.

Naturally, the sight of white lions caught the eye of biologists, hunters, and breeders. Humans traded and brought them to foreign countries where they lived in zoos as part of the entertainment. In addition, researchers transported the animals to new destinations to study them.

While this allowed the species to grow in captivity, it led to the inevitable downfall of the white lions in Africa and the wild. For 12 years, you couldn’t find white lions in their natural habitat.

The Global White Lion Protection Trust slowly reintroduced them into protected areas. Their ancestral homeland, Timbavati being one of them.

In terms of captive breeding, white lions are thriving. Active breeding has taken something that occurs by fluke in nature and manipulated it for the purpose of tourism. There are 100s of captive white lions found in all parts of the world, in countries where they are not native.

Are white lions endangered?

Due to their majestic coloring and appearance, the white lions have naturally gained attention. From both animal enthusiasts and sadly, poachers. Uncontrolled trading and trophy hunting have left these animals in a state of near extinction, in terms of being a wild animal.

Trophy hunting often targets the male white lions because of their size and magnificent mane. As a result, there are fewer breeding opportunities, making the appearance of white lions even rarer.

Seeing as though the white lions form part of the lion classification, Panthera leo, they share the same status of conservation. Currently, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) deems lions as vulnerable.

Viewing the white lions simply as ‘vulnerable’ can be detrimental to them, as they do not receive full protection. This puts them at serious risk of becoming extinct in the wild.

Are White Lions Albino Lions?

Big male white lion portrait, with blue eyes

White lions are a result of leucism. This is a glitch in the genetic coding for color which causes either a reduction in or complete lack of pigmentation cells. The lack of pigmentation is all 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 color is hardly affected by leucism. And in the case of the white lions, their eyes are often a startling blue.

Chris McBride, who “discovered” and first documented the white lions in the Timbavati, holds his own opinion. He believes 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. However, it is an indication that something has gone wrong, genetically.

White Lion Habitat: Their Natural Home

Besides their unique coloring, African white lions are exactly the same as the usual lions roaming around Africa. Their natural habitats include grasslands, desert areas, the savanna, and woodlands.

Are there white lions living in the wild?

White lioness and her three cubs walking on a dirt track

Currently, there are 11 known white lions in South Africa living in the wild.

Where do white lions live?

White lions are indigenous to the Greater Timbavati region in South Africa. At the moment, Timbavati is home to the largest number of wild white lions.

There are places in South Africa that have gone out of their way to breed white lions as tourist attractions. Purely to make money out of them. Yet, places like Timbavati Private Game Reserve have been the only place in which the lions occur without human interference.

Breeding is successful at the moment and the animals there have happily made themselves a part of the tawny-colored lion prides.

The Kruger National Park, also in South Africa, is another protected area where white lions live. White lions were first born in the Kruger as early as 2014.

White Lion Prides in Timbavati

Male and female white lions having sex

Timbavati holds 5,000 acres of land in which the white lions are free to roam and mingle with fellow lions. Surprisingly, in 2006 there was a significant increase of them in the region. This indicates that the recessive trait is still present in lions in Timbavati, even after years of technical extinction.

The reserve currently has three prides that feature white lion members. One of the prides includes two young male white lions. These males will remain in the pride until they have reached sexual maturity, around ages three and four.

They’ll then leave the pride together in search of new territory to claim. And hopefully, go on to mating with other female white lions and continuing this beautiful phenomenon naturally.

A sad reality is that only 50% of lion cubs survive until adulthood, so you can only imagine how rare it is to see white lions thriving. These lions are a wonder to see in nature.

Are the Timbavati white lions dangerous?

The white lions in Timbavati are no more dangerous than your usual lion. Although you don’t want to be stuck out in the wild with them, the ones in Timbavati are well-aware of the regular visitors.

White lion Timbavati survival

Big male white lion and wildebeest facing each other from a distance

Previously, researchers believed the Timbavati lions would never be able to survive on their own. Presumably because of their weaker gene. This was another reason for bringing them into captivity. However, there is no evidence to support this claim.

One might think that because there are so few of the lions, that they lack the ability to hunt and fight successfully in the wild? Well, this isn’t necessarily the case, they’re just as effective as their tawny-colored family members.

The Good to Know White Lion Facts

Fascinated by these incredible lions? Here are some general facts you may not have known about the prides.

How much does a white lion weigh?

Big male white lion on the hunt

The lion is the second-largest cat, almost beating the striped tiger. Being a predatory cat, they rely on their size and muscle mass. They’re called the King of the Jungle for good reason.

An adult male can average around 225 kilograms. Females weigh slightly less, averaging around 160 kilograms. This doesn’t mean the female is any less powerful than her male companion. In a pride of lions, females take on a large portion of the hunting.

How old can white lions live up to?

Like other lions, they can live around 10-14 years in the wild.

It’s tough for baby white lions to make it in their first year of life. Once a female has given birth to her cubs, she’ll leave the pride for a while before reintroducing them to the rest of her family.

Once the youngster has reached maturity, they have every chance of living as old as the typical lion.

In captivity, you can expect white lions to live up to 20 years. Although they live longer, their lives aren’t as happy, nor successful, as out in their natural homelands.

What do white lions eat?

White lioness feasting, her head maculated with blood

When it comes to a lion diet, they aren’t fussy. They’ll mostly go for grazers, including zebras, buffaloes, impala, and wildebeest.

During their younger years, males may start experimenting with their strength by trying to kill a baby elephant or giraffe. They’re not as experienced as they may think, often resulting in a tired-out lion.

Finding the White Lions of Timbavati

A young wild white lion cub looks for the rest of his pride, as he is the last member to finish drinking

We should all cherish and adore these animals, and in no way interfere with their way of life.

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.

The white lions of the Timbavati are a reminder of just how much we need to protect the earth’s last outposts. By booking a safari you can have the opportunity to go in search of these majestic creatures and witness for yourself this incredible phenomenon.