Did you know?In the wild, white lions often form part of a 'regular' tawny pride.
Timbavati’s white lions exist more readily in popular imagination and zoos than they do in the wild. These rare, pale-furred cats were first ‘discovered’ in 1975 by lion-researcher and conservationist Chris McBride, who encountered a lioness with three cubs: one was a tawny male, but two were near snow-white.
The lions captured headlines around the world. Both white cubs, christened Temba (Zulu for hope) and Tombi (girl), along with their brother Vela (surprise), who also carried the recessive gene responsible for the genetic anomaly, were captured, and taken to Pretoria Zoo for scientific analysis and breeding purposes.
Despite these efforts, wild populations of white lions ‘died out’ – or so it was believed. Then, in 2006, two white lions were born in the Umbabat Private Nature Reserve (UPNR) bordering the Kruger National Park, the first wild-born white lions in nearly 13 years. Since then, various reserves have confirmed rare sightings of white lion cubs.
The conservation status of Timbavati’s white lions remains a contentious issue. Some conservationists argue the scarcity of the genetic code necessary to produce more white offspring, along with increased vulnerability in the wild due to their white colouration, as a justification for placing these cats in zoos and breeding programmes. However, with an already severely restricted gene pool, inbreeding is a very real concern for white lions in captivity.
What is known is that white lions are not a separate subspecies, and so cannot become extinct. Wild white lions have never been seen anywhere other than the Timbavati Game Reserve suggesting that the ‘white’ gene pool is unique to this area. High cub mortality resulting from rival predators, dominant male lions, and compromised camouflage, already limits Timbavati’s white lions’ chances of survival, and means that their exact numbers in the wild are unknown.
The best place to see white lions in Timbavati is in the northern reserves, adjacent to the Kruger National Park. Here, the private reserves in the area share traversing rights, so a visitor stands an increased chance of a white lion sighting. Most reserves are also members of the Associated Private Nature Reserves (APNR), and abide by strict protocols designed to ensure game-viewing vehicles do not harass the white lions.
If you’re fortunate enough to see a white lion, treasure the moment.
Travel tips & Planning info
Who to contact
Timbavati Private Nature Reserve
Tel: +27 (0) 15 793 2436
How to get here
Fly into Hoedspruit/Eastgate airport arrange a transfer or self-drive (approximately six hours from Johannesburg). Private plane charters are available and some of the reserves have a private airstrip.
Best time to visit
Winter (May to August) is the optimum time for game viewing. It is the dry season, the vegetation is less dense, and game tends to congregate around water holes.
Around the area
Visit Northern Kruger Park. Outside the reserve, Hoedspruit is renowned for its wildlife breeding and rehabilitation centres.
If travelling by road, hire a car. If flying into Hoedspruit, hire a car or arrange a transfer.
What will it cost
Prices vary between the different lodges on the reserve, but always check for special offers.
Length of stay
At least two nights, preferably three.
What to pack
Neutral-coloured, light-weight clothing, warm windbreaker, rain gear, hat, sunglasses, sun screen, walking shoes and sandals. In winter a scarf, woollen hat and gloves.
Where to stay
There are numerous safari lodges in the Timbavati Private Nature Reserve.