Timbavati’s white lions were first discovered in the 1970s and have been famous ever since. Seldom seen in the wild, it’s now easier to see white lions of the Timbavati in zoos or other breeding facilities.

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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.

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