South Africa: White lions make history at reserve

Cape Argus (Cape Town)
12 October 2008
Posted to the web 13 October 2008
Rare white lions have been released into the wild at Sanbona wildlife reserve, making the Klein Karoo wildlife reserve home to what’s believed to be the only free-roaming white lions in the world.
The reserve, in 2003, procured two white lions, one male and one female, as the basis for an ambitious project – to re-establish the first wild, self sustaining white lions since their removal from the Timbavati region in the 1970s.
Spokesperson Veronique von Rehbinder said white lions had been isolated to breeding programmes and circuses over the past few decades and there had been few reported sightings of the rare big cats in natural environments.
“As a result, it has been widely assumed that the recessive gene in the lions producing the unusual colouring is bordering on extinction,” she said.
The project aimed to integrate the white lion offspring with wild tawny lions so that they could be taught to hunt and survive naturally.
“Breeding between white and tawny lions would also considerably improve the genetic integrity of the white lions, as they have been inbred on breeding farms from a very small founder population,” she said.
The project culminated in the recent release of an integrated lion pride, including two adult males and two juvenile female white lions, into 40 000 hectares of wild land with herds of potential prey species.
Von Rehbinder said the pride was being monitored closely and that although they often separated and went their own way, they reunited regularly and were hunting and fending for themselves.
She said white lions are not albinos as they have pigmentation which shows particularly in eye, paw pad and lip colour.
“These rare big cats are not a separate sub-species of Panthera leo, the African lion. Their condition is the result of a recessive gene and is termed leucism.”
She said cubs may be born normal tawny lions, but carry the recessive leucism gene, which may emerge in future generations if the lion is partnered correctly.
“Unlike normal lion cubs that are spotted at birth, the coat of white cubs is almost pure white.”
Learn more about big cats and Big Cat Rescue at
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