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Sacred White Lions of South Africa

Updated: Aug 14, 2023


White male lion in the Kruger National park

Regarded as a most sacred animal by African tribal elders, it is estimated that there are 500 white lions worldwide - in captivity. White lion offspring being born to normal colored parents (a phenomenon known as Leucism) is not new to this part of the world. The famous "White Lions of the Timbavati" made headlines in the 70's and 80's.


White lions owe their unique coloring to a recessive white gene. This gives rise to a lion with a white pelt and pigmented eyes and skin. A number of sightings have been reported in different areas of the Kruger National Park and they could occur again at any time in the Timbavati Prides.


They are as rare as they are beautiful. They seem to have an ethereal and angelic quality to them with their stunning blue eyes and snow-white coats. Their ancestral home is the Timbavati region within the Greater Kruger National Park. They are synonymous with the area with the name “Timbavati” meaning “the place where star-lions came down”.


White Lions in the wild


There are only a handful of white lions which can be found in the wild. Some of them can be found here in South Africa. A famous male in the Kruger National Park, another young male and related female part of Timbavati’s mighty Birmingham pride and recently spotted cubs which are also found in Timbavati.

During the course of Covid there was a particular Lion in the Kruger National Park that became rather famous thanks to programs like WildEarth and the droves of South Africans that visited Kruger National Park once the lockdowns where lifted and you could travel. That animal was none other than Casper, the White Lion of Kruger National Park.


His celebrity status shot through the roof of course because of his beautiful white coat and mane which is incredibly rare. If you love Lions and are an avid traveler who likes going on Safari or perhaps you have watched an exceptional amount of National Geographic over the years, you may have come across an old famous documentary called the “the white Lions of the Timbavati”. These fabled few where the first to get our attention and stirred up a lot of conversation regarding the rare abnormality of the White Lion gene.


White lion cub in Kruger National Park

Habitat and Distribution


The natural habitat of a white lion includes savannas, woodlands, and desert areas. They are indigenous to the Greater Timbavati region in southern Africa and are currently protected at the Central Kruger Park in South Africa. After being hunted to extinction in the wild, white lions were reintroduced in 2004. With the ban on trophy hunting in the Timbavati region and surrounding nature preserves, the first white cubs were born in the area in 2006. Kruger Park had its first occurrence of white lion cub births in 2014.


Diet and Behavior


White lions are carnivores, and they eat a variety of herbivorous animals. They hunt gazelles, zebras, buffaloes, wild hares, tortoises, and wildebeests. They have sharp teeth and claws that allow them to attack and kill their prey. They hunt by stalking their prey in packs, patiently waiting for the right time to strike. Lions typically kill their prey by strangulation and the pack consumes the carcass at the site of the kill.


Some folklore


Europeans first spotted and described the white lion in the Timbavati region of South Africa during the late 1930s and mid-1970s. However, accounts of white lions have been around for centuries and according to legend, the white lions were children of the Sun God, sent to earth as gifts.

Oral traditions portray the first appearance of the white lions over 400 years ago during the reign of Queen Numbi in the region now known today as Timbavati. According to the story, Queen Numbi had seen a shining star falling to the ground and once her and her people had approached it, they found it to be a shining ball of metal, brighter than the sun. Queen Numbi approached it was swallowed by its light and when she emerged again, she had been restored to health and youth. The fallen star remained there for some days and then rose back into the sky. For many years after this event, white offspring were born to those animal species who stayed where this mysterious star had fallen…

They are considered to be ‘the most sacred animal on the continent”, according to local communities and are known as symbols of leadership, pride and royalty.


White lion cubs with mother

How are white lions born?


Like tawny lions, white lions reach sexual maturity between ages three and four. Most white lions are bred and born in captivity, usually in zoos. Those in captivity may mate on a yearly basis, while those in the wild mate about every two years. Lion cubs are born blind and rely on their mother for the first two years of life. A lioness usually gives birth to two to four cubs in a litter.

In order for there to be a chance that some of the offspring will be white lions, the parents either need to be white lions or carry the rare white lion gene. Since the animal must bear two recessive alleles to exhibit the trait, there are three scenarios in which a white lion cub might be born. If both parents are tawny and carry the gene, there is a 25% chance the offspring will be a white cub; if one parent is a white lion and the other is tawny with the gene, there is a 50% chance the offspring will be a white cub; and if both parents are white lions, there is a 100% chance the offspring will be a white cub.


Conservation Status


Since white lions are included in the general classification for lions (Panthera leo), they are designated as vulnerable according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). In 2015, the conservation authority in South Africa proposed to down-list the conservation status of all lions to Least Concern. Doing so would put white lions at serious risk of becoming extinct in the wild once again. The Global White Lion Protection Trust is currently pushing for the classification to be moved to Endangered.


Faring in the wild


There are differing opinions as to whether white lions are disadvantaged in the wild due to their color. Some believe so as they are not able to camouflage as well as tawny lions in their environment, making them more visible to prey and poachers. However, how much they’re camouflaged depends on the environment they’re in. They do not blend in as well as tawny lions in grasslands and similar vegetation, but in riverbeds and sandy areas, they blend in better than their tawny counterparts. Research has been undertaken to see if white lions are more disadvantaged than tawny lions, with the results showing that they are not. It is believed that living in a pride with tawny lions will help white lions survive, with group hunting and protection, as well as many of the prey species being partially color-blind and unable to distinguish between the different colors of predators.


two lion cubs with mother in Kruger National Park

As lions are said to only see in black, white and shades of grey, it is believed that lions do not see any differences in color between themselves.


White lions are a great example of the wonders of nature, and we are able to witness it at it’s finest.

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