There are only an estimated 500 white lions worldwide - in captivity. Regarded by African tribal elders as the most sacred animal on the African continent, this rarest of rarities have been hunted to extinction in the wild by trophy hunters and poachers who pay astronomical sums to shoot a white lion for pleasure. When the White Lions of the Timbavati were discovered in the mid-1970s they became the subject of much interest and debate. The story of the “White Lions of the Timbavati” has been told by several people, most notable of whom was Mr. Chris McBride, who published two books about the phenomenon: The White Lions of the Timbavati and Operation White Lion. Chris was the son of Timbavati member Cyril McBride who at the time, together with his brother Robert - owned the farm Vlakgezicht. The famous white lions of the Timbavati were first sighted by Cyril McBride’s daughter Lanice van den Heever in October of 1975.
McBride relied heavily on the expertise and knowledge of two local trackers, Jack Mathebula and Mandaban Hlongo, in his efforts to track the white cubs. These men had grown up in the bush and had intimate knowledge of the behaviour of lions.
There have been various “spiritual” powers attributed to the White lions and many people were and still are of the opinion that the lions are a different species. The truth is that this is a natural phenomenon that occurs due to “leucism” (see below). Though no White lions have been spotted in the Timbavati for many years, a number of white lions are regularly seen in the Kruger National Park in different areas and they could occur at any time in the Timbavati Prides again.
The white coats possessed by the “White Lions of the Timbavati” were not the product of “albinism” (a relatively common condition resulting from a failure to develop pigment), but from another condition called “leucism”, in which the pelt is white but eyes and skin are pigmented. This rare event (also termed a “chinchilla mutation”) is thought to represent an evolutionary stage in the progressive loss of pigmentation.
The white mutation, which affects two of the pigments involved in coat colouration, is expressed only when two conditions pertain:
- Both parents carry the recessive “white gene”; and
- the offspring inherit the recessive gene of each parent. If a cub receives a dominant “tawny” gene from either parent, its pelt will be tawny. Thus a litter may be comprised of both tawny and white cubs.