Year in the Wild Blog

White Lions! What a way to end…

I’ve finished! My second Year in the Wild is over, and I haven’t uploaded a blog for a while, because I’ve been in the north of Kruger, where there is little cell phone reception or internet. In the next few days, I’ll be uploading several blogs about my time in the north, which is my favourite part of this 2 million hectare protected area.

What a way to end: white lions! I couldn’t have planned a better way to end my epic year of exploring South Africa’s wildest places. I’ve spent the past week at Walker’s River Camp in Timbavati, a 500 square kilometre private reserve that lies to the west of central Kruger National Park, and because the fences between the two were dropped in 1993, there’s a real sense of wildness here. Timbavati is just one of several huge private reserves that now makes up the greater Kruger National Park.

What makes Timbavati undoubtedly famous is its white lions. I was guided by Pat Donaldson, a private guide who has worked in the area since 1969, and has spent his whole life in the bush of Southern Africa. He knows Timbavati probably better than almost anyone, and during my time with him at Walkers Camp, he managed to find us the white lions near the Klaserie River that flows in the west of the reserve.

As Pat explained, there are only six white lions occurring naturally in the wild of Africa, and five of them are in Timbavati (apparently there is a white lioness in the south of Kruger, near Pretoriuskop Camp). Well, we saw all five of the Timbavati white lions: two adult lionesses and three cubs.

Early one morning, we spotted the two white lionesses on a ridge near the river, along with a young “tawny” male. We knew that the cubs were probably nearby, but at first we couldn’t see them. Just after sunset, the white lionesses and young male pushed off, down into the reeds of the river bed.

Immediately, a few of the cubs emerged and greeted their mother, one of the lionesses (which has blue eyes – the other has brown eyes). According to Pat, this white lioness mother has given birth to both tawny and white cubs in the past few years, and that morning we could only see the tawny cubs, which are an older litter than the white cubs.

These current white lions of Timbavati are the first to be seen since the 1990s, and this rare form of Africa’s lion was first sighted in October 1975 by Lanice van den Heever. They are white from tail to head, and their incredible, mesmerising colouring is not a result of “albinism”, but rather “leucinism“, where the pelt is white but the eyes and skin are pigmented.

In order for a cub to be born as a white lion, both parents need to carry the recessive white gene and the cub has to inherit this gene from each parent. If a cub receives a dominant “tawny” gene, it’s pelt will be tawny, so a litter can comprise both white and tawny cubs.

“These particular white lions are extra special,” explained Pat, “because this is the first time that a white lioness has given birth to white cubs. Previously, only tawny lionesses have given birth to white cubs, or white lionesses have given birth to tawny cubs.”

The next morning, we went out early again, and didn’t find the adults, but we did find the youngsters, including the three white cubs. They were playing in the sand of the river bed, well hidden behind the reeds. I couldn’t get great photos, but it didn’t matter because just to see these white cubs is a wildlife experience of immense proportions! And we were the only people there…which makes it even more special.

Where were the adults? Pat reckons they had gone off hunting. “The white lioness mother is an exceptional hunter,” said Pat, who has sighted her regularly on kills.

Does the unique colouring not hinder the hunting prowess of the white lions? Apparently not. In fact, Pat believes that the white colouring could in fact be an advantage for the white lions. “Antelope, buffalo, giraffe and zebra may be confused and intrigued by the strange colouring,” Pat said, “and they may not realise that the white animal is in fact a lion!”

I could understand this. Lions are generally fascinating creatures, and when they’re not sleeping, they make photogenic subjects.

But white lions take things to another level of fascination. I couldn’t take my eyes off them. Their coats are WHITE – not pale beige or cream. They are white like the colour of printing paper. The white lioness mother – the expert hunter – has bright blue eyes, which in itself is an hypnotic feature. No wonder the antelope get confused by the sight of her.

And it’s no surprise that the local Shangaan people consider the white lion to be a divine creature, with spiritual powers. I can understand why, such is the visual impact of their appearance in the wild bushveld of Timbavati and Kruger.

Check out Walker’s Camp by calling Ingrid Walker on +27-83-629-6855 or e-mail ingridcarenwalker@gmail.com, or give Pat Donaldson a call on +27-81-798-4005 or e-mail him at pat.donaldson@telkomsa.net.

As we first saw her. The dawn sunlight catching her white coat.

Checking us out. At first, she was skeptical of our presence, but then she relaxed. Those blue eyes...wow!

Standing tall! Great to see the white lions of Timbavati again. My first visit to Timbavati was as a kid in the mid 1980s, about ten years after they were discovered.

Ice queen - the white lioness mother

The two white lionesses, on the move towards the river bed, soon after sunrise.

Impressive creatures! And they look very healthy. Apparently, anecdotal evidence suggests that white lions have a greater hunting success rate than their tawny counterparts, because their white colouring seems to confuse or intrigue their prey.

Early morning yawn.

The lioness looks like she is growling, but she's finishing off a yawn!

The young tawny male in the group. We watched him follow the lionesses down into the river bed, and the lioness mother promptly mauled him, warning him not to get too close to the cubs. We didn't see this...just heard the growls and thunder behind the reeds!

Seems like she is in excellent condition...

The white lioness with brown eyes. Not all white lions have blue eyes.

The mother went down into the river bed, and gave us one last look before disappearing with the cubs.

How are those blue eyes? Hypnotic. No wonder the local Shangaan people consider these white lions to have spiritual significance.

White lion cub...an extremely lucky sighting

These photos of the cubs were taken through the reeds, behind which they were hiding. But still, it was a superb experience.

These photos of the cubs were taken through the reeds, behind which they were hiding. But still, it was a superb experience.

A white cub emerges...how cute is that?

Their white fluffy coats are quite something...

Tawny and white cub playing in the river sand

The two white cubs and tawny cub in this photo are noticeably smaller than the one tawny cub, because they are a younger litter.

I wish those reeds weren't in the way!! Still, this remains one of my best wildlife sightings to date.

For more, go to www.yearinthewild.com and www.facebook.com/yearinthewild. Check out my Flickr photos at www.flickr.com/scottnramsay and my Instagram photos at www.instagram.com/wildscotty. Twitter on www.twitter.com/yearinthewild.

Thanks to my partners Cape Union MartFord EverestGoodyear, and K-Way.

As well as WildCardEeziAwnFrontrunnerGlobecommHetznerNational LunaOutdoor PhotoSafari Centre Cape Town, Tracks 4 Africa, and Vodacom.

Conservation partners BirdLife South AfricaBotswana Department of Wildlife and National ParksCapeNatureEastern Cape Parks and TourismEzemvelo KZN WildlifeGorongosa National ParkiSimangaliso Wetland Park, Namibia Wildlife Resorts, Parque Nacional do Limpopo, South African National Parks and Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority.

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