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White Lions Again on the Prowl

image of Kim Tingley
Inbreeding of white lions in zoos can lead to health problems, so reintroduction into the wild is critical to the species' survival.
The cats came back, with some help from humankind

South Africa’s Timbavati region is the only place in the world where white lions have ever appeared. White (or sometimes blond) lions are actually no different biologically from tawny African lions. Their unusual color is not albinism but a trait expressed by the offspring of two cats that both harbor a “white” recessive gene. Scientists can’t say why the trait has only surfaced in this particular location; indigenous people who attribute the mysterious appearance of white lions to divine intervention consider them sacred.

Ongoing Series: Species Watch

Although rare, white lions are currently classified with their tawny brethren, undistinguished, as Panthera leo krugeri. Because African lions can be legally hunted, white lions are not protected under national or international law. They’ve also long been popular attractions at zoos and circuses. By the mid-1990s, hunting and capture resulted in their complete disappearance from the wild.

In recent years, however, efforts have been made to return white lions to nature by integrating them with tawny prides -- in part to enhance the genetic diversity of future offspring. (Captive white lions are often inbred to draw out the recessive trait, but the results are seldom glamorous. A five-year study of white lion inbreeding at an Italian zoo, published in September by Veterinary Pathology online, found high rates of cranial malformation, stillbirth, and death of newborn cubs.)

In 2006, the Global White Lion Protection Trust reintroduced cats to a protected area of the Greater Timbavati. And in July 2008, a team from Shamwari Dubai World Africa Conservation released four white lions into the Sanbona game reserve near Cape Town. Both groups say their cats are proving self-sufficient -- the ultimate goal for those hoping to see a resurgence of white lions in the wild.

image of Kim Tingley
Kim Tingley is a regular contributor to OnEarth and the New York Times Magazine. She has an MFA in nonfiction writing from Columbia University and in 2012 received a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award, given annually to six female writers who dem... READ MORE >