In a small area of the Kruger National Park in South Africa exists a rare genetic mutation that is yet to be sub-classified as its own species, yet the tawny lions of this protected area carry a unique gene – one that produces snow white lions. Sighting them in the wild is a special treat reserved only for a lucky few. Fortunately, these rarest animals have been successfully bred in captivity, numbering some 400 worldwide. Those in the wild, however, remain on the endangered species list. One woman, with a spiritual connection, is on a mission to change that.

The white lion is legendary, long alluded to in ancient texts going back some 400 years. While the rumors all seem to pinpoint an area in Southern Africa, no proof of these ‘albino’ lions could be produced. And then, in 1928, reports of sightings from the Shangaans in an area now known as the Timbavati, emerged. Twenty years later Joyce Mostert, whose family owned land in the area, was credited as the ‘first European’ to confirm the existence of these rare animals. Again in 1959 there was a brief sighting.

Finally, in 1975, there was a breakthrough when Chris McBride came across a pride with two white lion cubs and was able to track them, eventually writing about it in the book; The White Lions of Timbavati. In it he details how they were transferred to Johannesburg zoo and a breeding program initiated with mixed results. Today, these endangered animals can be seen in zoos and safari parks from New Zealand to Thailand, and Singapore to Serbia and the United Kingdom – where two were controversially sold to a circus in Japan. However, they all come from a very narrow gene pool, susceptible to defects.

White Lions and cubs
White Lions and cubs.

To be clear, the white lion is not an albino version of the species Panthera leo krugeri (Tawny African Lion), but rather a mutation known as a leucistic recessive traits that limits pigmentation. They are differentiated from other albino versions of tigers, deer, alligator, and hedgehogs even, by their lack of ‘pink eyes’. And more than one variant has been discovered, including a male spotted hundreds of miles away in the Umfolozi Game Reserve near the KwaZulu Natal coast.

Seeing these white lions, or better still a cute white lion cub, in the wild is very rare. They are an endangered species and little can be done to protect them since they have yet to be classified properly as a sub-species. Efforts to re-introduce captive bred white lions into the wild have met with limited success. The prides of the area carry the gene but knowing just which tawny males and females are capable of producing a white lion is very difficult and depends on a variation of breeding possibilities involving a mating pair both carrying the recessive gene. As recently as July 15th of this year a very young cub was spotted at Singita Lebombo within the Kruger National Park.

Perhaps the highest profile person to draw attention to the white lion is Linda Tucker, who moved back to South Africa in 1991 to dedicate herself to the cause after a chance encounter not with the white lions but a sangoma – a witch doctor from the local Shangaan tribe.

White Lions photo credit Chad Cocking
A beautiful white lioness.

In her book, The Mystery of the White Lions, she relates how their Landrover had become bogged down in mud during a night drive, leaving them fearful and stranded with lions nearby. Maria Khoza had appeared ‘out of nowhere’ and in a trance had safely walked among the lions surrounding the car, enabling a rescue call for evacuation.

What has followed is a 10 year spiritual journey for Linda, unearthing all sorts of curious legends from these shamans, purporting that a meteor that struck the area in the 17th century was no accident and resulted in the mutation and the creation of these African mythical creatures. Her theories become more esoteric when suggesting this was a signal of a new ‘end of times’ epoch (insisting we are entering the Age of Leo, exiting Aquarius), and pointing out that the Timbavati wildlife park is part of a great meridian line that includes the Nile, Olduvai Gorge, Great Zimbabwe and Sterkfontein, which contains some of the oldest remains of mankind.

All the same, when you come on safari to the Timbavati Game Reserve you know you’re in a special place, with a special mammal. Linda’s efforts towards conserving these exotic animals are commendable, spiritual significance notwithstanding, and she’s unearthed some truly fascinating stories from local Shangaan spiritual mediums that are centered on these particular lions. The White Lion Trust has been set up to raise awareness and funds for their survival. Technically they are considered extinct. Although hundreds are kept in captivity, they have been genetically tampered with.

The Tanda Tula Safari Camp in the Timbavati is a lovely accommodation option in the heart of the white lion country. Even though they feature the lions on their website, they obviously cannot guarantee sightings. African Safari Consultants also recommends the &Beyond Camp at Ngala, which is another South African tourism favorite located about 10kms from Timbavati. It offers an equally reliable chance of sighting lions in this part of the Kruger Park, and capturing these magnificent creatures in wildlife photography.

White lions Timbavati
A ‘regular’ lion and white lion side-by-side.