Last weekend I visited the Global White Lion Protection Trust, a private reserve devoted to protecting white lions and returning them to the wild in South Africa’s Timbavati region. Almost from the moment I arrived, I began to think about how I would write this blog post.
I’d been expecting a typical fun weekend in the bush — hanging out with my blogger friends, eating good food, and seeing wildlife in a beautiful place far away from the big city.
I got all of those things, and a lot more: Dramatic tales of near-death experiences; an outspoken fashion-model-turned-lion-woman; scientific discussions; mystical stories of spirits and stars; horrific accounts of evil lion-hunters, past and present; a sunset parade through the wilderness with a giant white lion puppet; adorable children singing about the majesty of the Star Lions; and half a dozen Shangaan medicine women stomping the dry, brown earth, gasping through perfumed smoke and screaming into the heavens.
I got all of this in just over 36 hours, book-ended by two seven-hour journeys in the back of a van between Johannesburg and Hoedspruit. Several days later, my mind is still spinning.
Let me start with the easy part of the story:
The white lions I saw this weekend are magnificent. The camp where we slept is called Camp Unicorn, which makes sense because a white lion is the closest thing I’ve ever seen, and ever will see, to a unicorn.
The Global White Lion Protection Trust is passionately committed to saving lions in the wild, and to nature conservation in general. The Trust advocates strongly against the disgusting practice of canned lion hunting, as well as lion-cub-petting programs and other forms of unethical tourism that feed the canned hunting industry. I am totally on board with all of this.
While I’m on the topic, let me reiterate that lion-cub-petting — which is offered at many tourist parks around Joburg and other parts of South Africa — is inhumane and unethical. Despite what the management of these parks says to the contrary, lion-cub-petting and “walking with lions” does lead to the canned hunting of lions. Read more about that in a post I wrote last year. I urge tourists to do some research into this subject before visiting places like the Lion Park and the Rhino and Lion park north of Joburg.
White lions, despite being ubiquitous in captive breeding programs that produce lions for trophy hunting, are extremely rare in the wild, and would probably be gone from the wild completely if not for GWLPT. There are about 13 documented white lions living in South Africa, all in this particular area, seven of which are at GWLPT.
I’ve seen white lions in captivity and they are nowhere near as beautiful behind fences as they are in the middle of a bushveld forest, the early morning sun shining through their glorious manes.
And now for the hard part of the story.
As I said, I was only at GWLPT for 36 hours and this wasn’t nearly enough time to absorb what’s going on there. But here are some of the questions that ran through my mind during the weekend:
1) White lions — which are not the same as albino lions — are exceptionally rare in the wild. They always have been and they always will be. White lions are only born when two lion parents are both carrying the recessive white lion gene, and this hardly ever happens. White lions are not a separate species; they are basically the same as other African lions, just with very pale fur and bluish eyes. White lions are certainly spectacular, and it would be incredibly sad if they disappeared from the wild. But couldn’t the huge amount of resources currently devoted to this very small number of lions be better spent protecting the entire population of wild African lions, which is also seriously threatened?
Of course, this issue isn’t all about science. GWLPT also considers the spiritual and symbolic importance of white lions, especially in the Timbavati region. I’ll get to that consideration in a moment.
2) The white lions living at GWLPT (there are seven of them, along with three tawny lions) are living in a very wild environment, especially when compared with the vast majority of captive white lions living in zoos and game farms. Fifteen years ago, the first white lions introduced to the GWLPT reserve — who had previously lived in captivity — learned to hunt, which was remarkable given that most experts at the time believed that white lions can’t hunt effectively. The lions living at GWLPT today hunt for themselves. However, the white lions wear radio collars and are closely monitored by the staff. If something goes wrong and the lions aren’t able to hunt, they are given food.
It can be argued that the lions in Kruger National Park aren’t strictly wild, either. There is plenty of human interference in South Africa’s game parks, and pretty much any game park in the world that is managing a population of apex predators. But the question remains: Will the small population of white lions at GWLPT ever be able to be released and integrated into the larger population of lions in the Kruger region? Could they survive outside of the closely monitored conditions at GWLPT? No one knows.
3) Linda Tucker, the founder and CEO of GWLPT, is a very charismatic woman with an incredible story. Several times during my weekend at GWLPT, I heard Linda tell the story of her fateful game drive in 1991, when the safari vehicle she was riding in broke down in the dark and became surrounded by a pride of hungry, aggressive lions. Linda prepared to die at the hands (or claws) of these lions, when suddenly a Shangaan medicine woman appeared in the darkness, baby on her back, and walked through the pride of lions, subduing them. From that moment on, Linda’s life was changed. She eventually gave up her modeling career in Europe, moved back to her native South Africa, tracked down the medicine woman who saved her, and devoted her life to working with the local community to save the white lions of the Timbavati.
Linda Tucker, second from left, at the launch of the #OneUnitedRoar campaign at GWLPT last weekend.
I can relate to Linda’s story. I too had a life-changing experience that led me to abandon my conventional life in “the West” and move to South Africa. I respect Linda’s passionate, single-minded pursuit of saving white lions, her courage in the face of South Africa’s powerful hunting industry (much of which is concentrated right around GWLPT), as well as her spiritual approach to conservation and her committed partnership with the local community around the Timbavati. The ceremony that we attended on Saturday was a great illustration of this partnership.
The white lion parade. We marched down into a dry riverbed at GWLPT to hold a ceremony honoring the white lions and a call to action to save them. The ceremony featured local youth groups involved in GWLPT’s StarLion education program, as well as a group of Shangaan sangomas, or medicine women.
When we reached the riverbed, the children, media, and GWLPT staff gathered below a collection of giant white animal puppets. Then the sangomas came and called to the ancestors. Note the lion imagery incorporated into the traditional Shangaan khangas that the medicine women wear. In Shangaan traditional folklore, as I understand it, white lions are considered to be sacred beings, sent down from the stars to, in Linda’s words, “Bring a divine consciousness to earth”.
So yeah, I get it. White lions are about more than science and wildlife conservation, and Linda uses her personal story to communicate this. But there is something about the telling of Linda’s story and the fanfare around white lions that feels…choreographed, perhaps even cultish.
I’ve barely scratched the surface of this issue and there is a lot that I still don’t understand. Three things I do know, though, are that white lions are beautiful, wild African lions need to be saved, and canned hunting must stop. I’ll leave it at that.
If you’re interested in visiting GWLPT, please be aware that they take special group bookings only. Staying there is nothing like staying at a regular game lodge: there are won’t be any gin and tonics, the food is mostly vegetarian (but delicious), and photography is prohibited except by special arrangement. I’m really glad they made an exception for us.
Have questions? Leave a comment and I’ll do my best to answer.
My stay at the Global White Lion Protection Trust was complimentary. Opinions expressed are my own.