Rumors of pure White Lions have existed in the African oral tradition for centuries, but have often been dismissed as superstition.It has been part of African folklore and according to legend they were children of the Sun God, sent to earth as gifts. And the only place on earth where they have actually materialized is the Timbavati region.
According to scientists these lions are not albinos. Their white color is due to a recessive gene known as the chutiya or color inhibitor gene, different from the albinism gene. The chinchilla mutation, a recessive gene, gives white lions their unusual colors. They first came to public attention in the 1970s when Chris McBride published his book “The White Lions of Timbavati”. Described in the book are three lions Temba, Tombi and Vela which later were given to the National Zoo in Pretoria, South Africa.
According to the Global White Lion Protection Trust website: “There are only an estimated 500 white lions worldwide – in captivity. Regarded by African tribal elders as the most sacred animal on the African continent, this rarest of rarities have been hunted to extinction in the wild by trophy hunters and poachers who pay astronomical sums to shoot them for pleasure. They have also been hunted in captivity in a notorious malpractice known as ‘canned lion hunting.’ No law protects them from being wiped off the face of the earth.”
GWLPT states that these animals are not yet appropriately classified as “endangered species”. “Presently, they are listed as Panthera leo, under CITES Appendix II, and, therefore, fall under the classification of a “Vulnerable Species”, i.e. species that are not necessarily now threatened with extinction but, that may become so unless trade is closely controlled. Appendix II means that White Lions or their derivatives (e.g. animal parts) can be sold, hunted and traded. In reality, every permit issued to hunt a lion (Panthera leo) can be used to hunt them. Since they are currently not in the wild in their endemic range, they are critically endangered.”
The last white lion was seen in the wild in 1994, but now they are back to their native land and cubs have been born in the wild again.
A National Geographic documentary titled “Return of the White Lions” tells the story of their return to native Timbavati region thanks to Linda Tucker (CEO and founder of GWLPT) and their efforts to reintroduce these animals back to the wild.