The Timbavati area of South Africa holds 5,000 acres of land that are dedicated for the care of white lions. For a long time, it was assumed that white lions are indigenous to this part of the world only. The first white lion was spotted in this region in 1938, but it was not until the 1970s that these animals were brought to public attention. Currently, there are about three pride of white lions in Timbavati and numerous individuals in zoos across the world.
What Is a White Lion?
Lions typically have hazel or golden-brown coloring for their fur. However, in the case of white lions, the coat is entirely white or a very pale version of the usual hazel fur. The color of the fur can range anywhere from a blonde to near-white. This coloration is inherited from the parents but is a recessive trait meaning that the likelihood of hazel-colored lion being born to hazel-colored lions is higher than that of a white lion. Similarly, breeding in white lions can result in hazel-colored offspring.
White Lions Versus Albino Lions
Albinism is the loss of the ability to generate melanin, a skin pigmentation that causes the dark coloration of the skin. White lions are not albinos as many people are likely to call them ‘albino lions.’ These lions have the usual pigment visible in the eyes - a blue-gray, hazel, green-gray or golden color. However, white lions are leucistic which refers to the reduction of multiple pigmentations and not just melanin. This trait amounts from a mild mutation of the enzyme that is responsible for the production of the skin pigmentations. Severe mutation in this enzyme has been shown to cause albinism. Although albinism in lions exists, they are not the same as the white lions.
Hundreds of white lions have been bred across the world, mostly in captivity. The Timbavati region in South Africa is often identified as the native home of the white lion. White lion trophy hunting had almost decimated the populations of this animal, but in 2006 there was an increase in the birth of white lions which has since seen the rise in population. This occurrence showed that the recessive trait that results in white lions was still present in the Timbavati region even after more than a decade of technical extinction. Like other lions, white lions are typically found in the savannah grasslands and hunt just like other lions.
Popular Culture and Conservation Status
The white lion is held in high-esteem by the local tribes in Timbavati. In this tribes, the white lion is regarded as a divine animal which reveals that the presence of white lions has been known even long before the discovery made in 1938. This animal is also a famous sight in zoos and circuses globally. Due to the rarity of the white lion many were sent into captive breeding and enlisted in circuses. Adult white lions were not seen in their natural habitat from 1994 which led to the initiative to re-establish white lions in their natural habitat. This initiative was spearheaded by the Global White Lion Protection Trust (WLT), and from 2004 the trust has achieved tremendous milestones such as protection of the white lions. The white lion is classified ‘Vulnerable’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).