Kenya’s once-in-a-century black leopard is getting the lion’s share of attention these days, but there’s another feline phenomenon in South Africa’s andBeyond Ngala Private Game Reserve that is nearly as rare. Last March, field guides on the reserve spotted a newborn white lion cub in the wild, and you can still see him and his littermates roaming the reserve.
Just how unusual are white lions? Only about a dozen exist in the wild today. That’s according to the Global White Lion Protection Trust, which was founded by South African conservationist Linda Tucker in 2002 to help protect white lions and reintroduce them into the wild.
White lions are not albinos. Rather, they have a recessive leucistic gene, which means a partial loss of pigmentation. That makes their hair white. But if you look closely, you’ll see that they do have pigment on certain body parts such as their nose, lips, and paw pads. This is also why white lions’ coloration can vary somewhat from silvery to blond, and they tend to have green or blue eyes.
Despite being so rare, white lions are considered the same species as regular lions (Panthera leo). That is why they are not on any sort of endangered animals list, and why they remain unprotected.
These magnificent mutants are endemic to South Africa’s Timbavati region, which includes parts of Kruger National Park as well as andBeyond Ngala Private Game Reserve. Timbavati means “place where something sacred came down to earth” in the indigenous Tsonga language.
According to local lore, there have been white lions in the area for centuries, though they were only “discovered” by Europeans in 1938. Shortly after, they began being hunted for trophies and removed from their native habitats to be bred in captivity.
White lions technically went extinct in the wild, but were reintroduced into the Timbavati region in 2004. There are now three prides of lions known to have the white recessive gene in the Timbavati, while further populations have been introduced at Pumba Private Game Reserve in the Eastern Cape region of South Africa, and Sanbona Wildlife Reserve in the Western Cape.
This particular cub is part of Ngala’s Birmingham pride and is snow-white compared to his conventional littermates, with mischievous aquamarine eyes.
“From what we’ve seen, he’s very brazen and bold,” said Bernard Stiglingh, a field guide at andBeyond Ngala Safari Lodge. “He stands out not only because of his color, but he’s also spunky and larger than his brothers, and he takes chances.”
Unfortunately, that is not a good thing. While it’s estimated that only around half of regular-hued lion cubs make it to adulthood, the chances of a white lion doing so are even less: “A regular lion’s tawny color blends into its surroundings,” said Stiglingh. “A white lion has a huge disadvantage, though, especially during its first year when cubs are left on their own a lot of time. The white coloring can draw the attention of predators. Later on, he’ll have a more difficult time hunting because he doesn’t blend into the bush.”
He said there were actually two white cubs on the reserve last year, but neither survived their first year.
On the bright side, there are cases of white lions surviving to adulthood in the wild, despite the adverse conditions they face along with other lions – namely shrinking territories, scarcity of resources, hunting, and climate change.
Given the routine tracking of this specific white lion’s pride by the rangers at andBeyond Ngala Safari Lodge and its nearby sister property, andBeyond Ngala Tented Camp, your best bet for spotting this resplendent rarity is with a stay at either property.
If you do come to see him for yourself, Stiglingh had a few tips for sighting the cub. “Be patient,” he said. “The guides will wait until the animals are most active in the mornings and evenings, which are also the best times for photography. You might catch moments of playing and interaction between mothers and cubs, which is beautiful.”
On a recent afternoon, the cub was hanging around with his siblings in a scrubby patch of land off the reserve’s main roads. Because no adult lions were present, we guests in the vehicle that spotted him were allowed to snap only a few shots over the course of a single minute. We had to leave the scene since safari vehicles can attract predators to the area. Even that was enough time to become completely infatuated, though, and to capture a few moments of daily dalliances in the life of a lion.
Stiglingh has seen this particular white cub dozens of times. But when asked if it ever gets old, he said, “I could see an infinity of white lions and be just as excited. It’s such a special thing and it’s an incredible privilege to work on a reserve where I get to see them regularly – something very few rangers, let alone people, have seen in the world.”
Hopefully successful reintroduction efforts combined with increased awareness and protection will mean white lion sightings in the wild might become more common, but no less special.