White lion sitting up

The Astonishing, Confounding Story of South Africa’s White Lions

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.

Sunrise in the TimbavatiSunrise at the Global White Lion Protection Trust, which borders the Timbavati Nature Reserve, which borders Kruger National Park.

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.

White lioness in the bushesMy first glimpse of a white lion — a lioness sleeping hard in the bushes after a big meal.

White lions in the bushAn hour or so later we came upon these brothers, Matsieng and Zukhara.

White lion closeupUp close and personal with one of the brothers.

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.

Lion brother restingWe ran into the brothers again the next morning.

White lions running1The brothers got up and ran past our vehicle.

White lions running 2I couldn’t believe how quiet they were as they ran.

White lions walking awayThe brothers fell into formation and trotted along the road for about half an hour, as we trailed behind. Watching them was electrifying.

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.

Jason Turner at the Global White Lion Trust, monitoring the movements of the lionsJason Turner, a lion ecologist and head of operations at GWLPT, monitors the movements of the lions during one of our game drives.

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 and Shangaan peopleLinda 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.

White lion parade at sunsetThe 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.

White lion parade from behindThis walk was beautiful.

Shangaan songoma dancing
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”.

Shangaan samgomas dancingI was stunned by this sangoma ceremony. It made me feel like my heart was going to jump out of my throat. 

Shangaan medicine womenMy photos don’t do these women any justice. 

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.

Little kids with white lions signThe youngest, and cutest, participants in the #OneUnitedRoar ceremony.

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.

Lone white lionI think this is my favorite picture.

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.

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17 Comments

  • Reply Gail Scott Wilson August 25, 2016 at 5:55 pm

    Wow what an experience love the photographs. I too am so against petting and walking with lions, in fact any wild animal. The sad thing is that so many people just don’t get it, believing what these reserves tell them.

    • Reply 2summers August 25, 2016 at 6:04 pm

      I know, it’s so frustrating. Clearly there is not enough space in all the humane zoos and game reserves in South Africa for all of the lion cubs being produced for these petting programs.

  • Reply Dale August 25, 2016 at 9:48 pm

    Magical creatures, thank you for highlighting them and the efforts to safeguard them. I’m curious though, why is photography prohibited? You’d expect photographs to be valued as ambassadors for the lions’ cause.

    • Reply 2summers August 26, 2016 at 8:44 am

      Hi Dale, thanks for the comment. I was also confused by the photography ban when I first heard about it. The reason is because Linda believes in a very spiritual approach to communicating with wildlife and nature, and she feels that cameras (and phones) disconnect us from our surroundings. I can see that angle to an extent, but I’m certainly glad I was allowed to take pictures 😀 Linda said they do have a special photography workshop once a year when participants are allowed to photograph the lions, but obviously that’s not what every photographer wants. Controversial, like many other aspects of the project!

  • Reply UnderAnAfricanSun August 26, 2016 at 9:27 am

    Very interesting post Heather and beautiful photos. Maybe you already know but there is currently a white lion in a pride near Satara camp in Kruger. There was another (different litter) but he didn’t make it. This one seems to be doing quite well, hopefully he will go on to keep the gene alive.

    • Reply 2summers August 26, 2016 at 9:29 am

      Yes, I heard that! It will be wonderful if that cub makes it.

      • Reply Ann March 20, 2017 at 4:50 pm

        I saw the white lion near Satara in Jan. 2017

        • Reply 2summers March 20, 2017 at 5:56 pm

          That’s awesome!

    • Reply Ann March 20, 2017 at 4:47 pm

      I also saw the white lion near Satara in Jan. 2017

  • Reply tenneymason August 26, 2016 at 9:59 pm

    Great post. I won’t bother to comment on the photography ban.

    • Reply 2summers August 26, 2016 at 10:00 pm

      Hahaha. But I was hoping you would!

  • Reply autumnashbough August 28, 2016 at 7:14 pm

    Fantastic photos and stories that I won’t find anywhere else. This is why I love your blog.

    And I like that you didn’t skip over the “cultish mentality” of the group. I find this, unfortunately, in many, many rescue groups. Sometimes their passion is so strong, their views so rigid, that they cannot cope with people who aren’t as single-minded as they are. As in, why wouldn’t you give all your money and your time to them? Inconceivable!

    But much would be lost without these groups and their extraordinary focus.

    • Reply 2summers August 28, 2016 at 8:01 pm

      Yeah, I guess you’re right. Sometimes it takes a little craziness to pursue a really difficult goal against huge odds. And saving white lions is definitely a tall order.

    • Reply 2summers August 28, 2016 at 8:02 pm

      PS, thank you for the very nice complement 🙂

  • Reply Aaaah December 30, 2016 at 5:07 pm

    As someone who has had a lot of experience in the anil industry I stopped reading this article as soon as you you went off about Petting/animal interactions. Yes most of the time it is a lion that will be hunted but there are a small number of facilities where this is not true. Please read up about zoological societies/associations such as PAAZA, EAZA, AZA. The last one being American the first African. Institutions that have been accredited by them are 100% for sure no way involved in shady animal dealing and should not be tarred with the same brush. They do amazing work and have the backing of experts in the purest sense of the word, whereas game farms are not audited in a similar manner.
    Lastly white lions are not a separate species they are a mutation. Rant done

    • Reply Aaaah December 30, 2016 at 5:08 pm

      Animal*

    • Reply 2summers December 30, 2016 at 5:14 pm

      Thanks for your comments. Yes, white lions are not a separate species and I stated that in my post. (I guess you didn’t see it since you stopped reading before that part.) I don’t agree with you about lion cub petting though. Even if a small number of facilities don’t sell their lions into canned hunting, I believe that the practice as a whole leads to inhumane treatment of lions and a perception that baby lions are toys for human amusement.

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