White lions are extinct in the wild, and only a small number exist on a South African Nature Reserve and various zoos around the world.
On December 9, 2008, two white lion cubs were born at Serbia’s Belgrade Zoo, making a total of five white lions at the zoo. Although traditionally considered divine due to their colouring, white lions are facing extinction, with only about 200 in the entire world.
White lions, also known as blond lions, are not albinos; rather, they are an extremely rare type of African lion. The white coat results from a recessive gene, which means that for a lion to be white, both parents must carry the gene. As a result, few are born, and existing white lions are targeted by game hunters because they fetch a high price on the black market.
Few White Lions Remain
Although white lions originated in the Greater Timbavati and southern Kruger Park region of South Africa, Europeans began removing them from their natural habitat and putting them into captive breeding operations and zoos beginning in the 1970s. Lion culling and trophy hunting during that era also depleted their numbers.
Disease and habitat destruction further reduced the number of white lions, and to make matters worse, lions are unpopular with the locals due to their tendency to attack cattle when migratory wild game is scarce. Although these are problems affecting all lion populations, given that white lions are already extremely rare, their risk of extinction is even greater.
While not currently defined as a subspecies of the tawny lion (Panthera leo), the Global White Lion Protection Trust is attempting to win the subspecies classification for white lions, based on the precedent set by the classification of the white Kermode (Spirit) Bear in British Columbia as a subspecies of the Black Bear. Winning such a classification would enable the white lion to be listed as endangered, and thus receive certain protections.
Some Believe That White Lions are at a Disadvantage in the Wild
Many have speculated that because white lions do not have the natural camouflage of their tawny counterparts, they are highly visible, particularly when young. As a result, white lion cubs may be more likely to fall victim to predators such as hyenas, and it would be more difficult for them to hide. Also, although lionesses do most of the hunting, young male lions are forced out of the pride when they are old enough to become a threat to the dominant older males, but still relatively inexperienced. After their expulsion, they must hunt for themselves unless they are able to take over another pride. As a result, a young male white lion could be at a particular disadvantage, having to hunt all alone and being exceptionally visible to his prey.
However, in the Greater Timbavati region where white lions originated, there are pale sandy riverbeds and sun-bleached grasses. Also, most animals that lions prey on are colour-blind, and thus not likely to perceive a significant colour difference between white and tawny lions. It has been noted that in the wild, white lions are frequently the dominant members of their prides, leading hunting expeditions and raising litters successfully, which suggests that contrary to popular belief, their colour does not present a problem in their natural habitat.
White Lion Conservation Efforts
The white lion population continues to be at risk, and captive breeding programs seek to keep them from disappearing completely. However, due to the small number of white lions available, there is a risk of inbreeding among close relatives, which can lead to genetic problems. Conservationists have attempted to mitigate this risk by breeding the offspring of captive white lions with regular tawny lions.
The Global White Lion Protection Trust is working to re-establish white lions in their natural Greater Timbavati habitat, and to protect the small population that exists on the reserve. For information on conservation efforts and how to help white lions, visit the Global White Lion Protection Trust website. To view video footage of the Belgrade Zoo’s white lions, see BBC News.
More on Endangered Big Cats
- Anabell, Maxine. (2001). “White Lions.” Lairweb.org.nz – Tiger Territory.
- Bryner, Jeanna. (17 October 2008). “Rare White Lions Get Wild.” LiveScience.com.
- CBC.ca. (11 July 2008). “White Lions Settle in Quebec Zoo to Breed.”
- The Global White Lion Protection Trust website. (n.d.). WhiteLions.org.
- Wray, James. (11 December 2008). “In Photos: “Belgrade Zoo White Lion Cub.” MonstersandCritics.com/science.