They always say that when on Safari, you never know what’s around the next corner. Every game drive is different and the anticipation of what’s to come is what makes it so exciting. On a beautiful winters morning we set out, eager to find some lions. Not long into the drive we saw tracks of a big herd of buffalo. Since buffalo are a firm favorite when it comes to lions’ meal options, we decided to follow them, in the hope that it would lead us to a lovely lion sighting.
It didn’t take long to find the herd grazing peacefully in the long winter grass. Buffalo as far as the eye could see! But we were on a mission to look for lions. So after spending some time with the buffalo we set off to see if we could find the lions. Lo and behold, there they were, lion tracks not too far from the buffalo. As we drove into the bush, a lion inquisitively popped up its head. Naturally we assumed it must be the resident Avoca pride. But to our surprise we found a very unique pride that we had heard of, but never seen on Makanyi property before. Makanyi shares unfenced borders with the Kruger National Park and these lions were from Kruger. What makes them so special is that they happen to have two stunning white lions in the pride. The one young male is just under the age of two and the female is a few months younger than the male. This was truly an unbelievably rare treat. Never before had a white lion been seen on Makanyi property. In fact, staff who have been at Makanyi since day one, have only seen white lions in our general area a handful of times. It is said that there are currently only 3 in the wild. You can imagine our surprise and disbelief on discovering them here.
Once the excitement had settled, we noticed that only the young male white lion was with the pride. Perhaps the female was just out of sight or she had lagged behind. But for the next while we just sat and enjoyed what was clearly a very special occasion.
This leucistic “white” gene pool is actually unique to the Timbavati and Southern Kruger Park area. It is the only place in the world where white lions occur naturally. They were thought to have been indigenous to the Timbavati area and the earliest recorded sighting in this region was in 1938. At one point there were none left in the wild. Thankfully the gene is still present in some wild lions, which means we do get to see white lion cubs born from time to time. But in order for a white lion cub to be born, both parents have to carry the gene. The chances of that happening are extremely rare. Even if both parents have the gene, not all cubs in that litter will necessarily be white lion cubs.
There are some common misconceptions about white lions. Many think they are a different species. However genetically, they are the same subspecies as the tawny lion we see regularly in our game reserves. Some also think they are albinos. However their rare condition is known as ‘leucism’, which refers to a partial loss of pigmentation in an animal. This causes white, pale or patchy colouration of their skin and hair but not the eyes. Fully grown, leucistic lions also have a black nose and black paws. If you look closely, you’ll see these lions do have pigment visible in their eyes. There is also speculation that they may find it harder to hunt due to their white colouration. Their white coat is more visible, particularly at night. However evidence exists that they are as successful hunters as the tawny lions. Some even say that their white colour could even confuse their prey.
Be that as it may, we certainly hope these white lions are around for a long time to come and that they give birth to their own white lion cubs in the future.