Sunday News; Sunday,May 20, 2007 @00:06
A RARE colour mutation of the Kruger subspecies of lion, the Panthera Leo krugeri is occasionally found in wildlife reserves in South Africa and appears as a White Lion. These white lions are not a separate subspecies and they have never been common in the wild. They first came to public attention in the 1970s in Chris Mc Bride’s book, The White lions of Timbavati, though regarded as divine by locals.
White lions remain rare in the wild and only occur when two lions carrying the mutant gene are mated. They are deliberately bred for colour in zoos where the greatest population of white lions is found.
Chinchilla or colour inhibitor, is caused by a recessive gene leading to white colour, they are not albino lions.
Because of their colour variation from blonde through near white, they have a disadvantage in nature as they are highly visible and give away to their prey and make them an attractive target for hunters. A white tiger is also produced by the similar gene hence they are selectively bred for zoos.
Genetic defects, reduced fertility and physical defects are results of inbreeding of close relatives for producing a white lion, although this has not yet been recorded in white lions in zoos as it has in white tigers.
According to Linda Tucker, white lions are bred in camps in S.Africa for canned hunts as trophies. Some of these lions have been found to have hind-limb paralysis and serious heart defects, indicating a several level of inbreeding involved in mass production.
They were first recorded in 1928 and in early 1940s. Two cubs, Temba, and Tombi, had a tawny brother called Vela, were seen at Timbavati Private Game reserve, adjacent to Kruger National Park. A white female cub called Phuma was sighted in the Timbavati pride, in 1976.
At the age of two years she was killed by hunters. Temba, Tombi and Vela, who carried the recessive white mutation were taken to the National zoo in Pretoria, S.Africa after Phuma was killed.
In 1996, Temba died after having sired several cubs. In 1981, Tombi had a white cub, but it did not survive. Vela sired a litter, but isn’t known of his lineage survival. Some of the white lions in Netherlands (Ouwehands Dierenpark) and a private S.African zoo appear to be from Temba, or possibly Vela, lines. After Temba, Tombi and Vela were removed, a few other white or blonde cubs were born in Timbavati.
In 1993, one female who had lived for several years was killed in a territorial fight. The chinchilla white or blonde mutation seems to have been lost in the wild, since then. An injured tawny lion from Timbavati, Timba was taken to the zoo for medical treatment.
He was believed to have the white genes and was bred to a captive female and then to one of his own daughters. A white lioness called Bella was produced as a result in 1982, which later produced many white cubs. At zoos in China, Germany, Japan, Philadelphia and Toronto are represented by this bloodline. All white lions in captivity can trace ancestry to the Timba-Bella mating.
To increase the genetic diversity of captive white lions and to reduce inbreeding depression, white lions from different strains were brought together by the Zoological Animal Reproductive Centre. All of the white lions come from the Kruger Park subspecies, at present and have not been bred with any other lion subspecies except for Toronto zoo’s white lioness which has been bred to a genetic male.
These lions are leucistic and not albino. They have pigment visible in the eyes which may be the normal hazel or golden colour, blue-grey or green-grey, paw pads and lips. Inhibiting the deposition of pigment along the hair shaft, restricting it to the tips, the leucistic trait is due to the chinchilla mutation. Paler the lion, less the pigment is along the hair shaft. As a result white lions range from blonde through to near white.
The males have pale manes and tail tips instead of the usual dark tawny or black.
While at Inkaya Nkalamo, Naoline the manageress called me and told me that one of the lionesses gave birth to one tawny white cub, by then it was only a week old. I sat comfortably preparing myself to carry the new born cub. As I took Tombi in my arms, it tried to climb over my chest. Its claws were very sharp compared to the grown up lions. I fed Tombi with milk in a feeding bottle. I revisited Tombi when she was four months old and was outstanding from the other cubs (see picture).