Ghosts of Timbavati

2014-10-13 10:08
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Scott Ramsay
visits the Timbavati Private Nature Reserve in the Kruger National Park famed for its ethereal white lions... 

"The Shangaan and Tsonga people revere the white lions of Timbavati as the spirits of deceased kings and chiefs. In this lowveld land of mystery and myth, these rare African creatures epitomize everything that is remarkable about the continent’s wildlife. Of all the remarkable wild animals in Southern Africa, few can match the white lion for its raw visual impact. 

We found two of these ice queen lionesses, on top of a ridge near Walker’s River Camp in the west of the 500 square kilometre Timbavati Private Nature Reserve, part of the greater Kruger National Park. 

The one white lioness had blue eyes, a piercing, high-voltage electric stare that seemed to sear its way through the bushveld. Their white coats – not beige, not cream, but white – were like royal robes, thrown around the broad shoulders of the king of the beasts.

The white lions have made Timbavati world famous. My guide Pat Donaldson explained that there are currently only six white lions occurring naturally in the wild of Africa, and five of them are in Timbavati (there is also a white lioness in the south of Kruger). 

There are many other white lions, bred for zoos and other reserves, but it’s widely considered that all of them have their genetic ancestry in the wild lions of Timbavati.

This rare form of colouring in Africa’s lion was first sighted in October 1975 by Lanice van den Heever, the daughter of one of the first private land owners of Timbavati to conserve the bushveld and wild animals. 

The arresting colouring is not a result of “albinism”, but rather “leucinism“, a genetic condition in which the pelt is white but the eyes and skin are pigmented.

In order for a cub to be born as a white lion, both parents need to carry the recessive white gene and the cub has to inherit this gene from each parent. If a cub receives a dominant “tawny” gene, its pelt will be tawny. A litter can therefore comprise both white and tawny cubs.

“These particular white lions are extra special,” explained Pat, as we admired the lionesses basking in the early dawn light, “because this is the first time that a white lioness has given birth to white cubs. Previously, only tawny lionesses have given birth to white cubs, or white lionesses have given birth to tawny cubs.”

We knew that the cubs were probably nearby, but at first we couldn’t see them. Just after sunrise, the white lionesses got up and walked down into the reeds of the Klaserie river that flows in the west of the reserve.

The lioness grunted softly, and we watched as a few of her tawny cubs emerged and greeted their mother. According to Pat, this white lioness mother has given birth to both tawny and white cubs in the past few years, and that morning we could only see the tawny cubs, which are an older litter than the white cubs.

The next morning, we went out early again, and didn’t find the adults, but we did find the youngsters, including the three white cubs. They were playing in the sand of the river bed, well hidden behind the reeds. 

Where were the adults? Pat reckoned they had gone off hunting. “The white lioness mother is an exceptional hunter,” said Pat, who has sighted her regularly on kills.

Does the unique colouring of white lions not hinder their hunting prowess? 

“Apparently not,” Pat said. “In fact, anecdotal evidence suggests that the white colouring could be an advantage for the white lions. Antelope, buffalo, giraffe and zebra may be confused by the strange colouring and may not realise that this white animal is in fact a lion!”

I could understand a prey’s predicament. The white coats are intriguing. In the beige bushveld, where almost every animal species is naturally evolved to blend into the environment, the white lion stands out like a shining ghost in the black night. It’s hard to take your eyes off this unique-looking animal. 

The Timbavati is now part of the greater Kruger National Park, and when the fences between the national park and the private reserve were dropped in 1993, wild animals could begin to move freely again. 

Pat believes that this can only be a good thing for conservation. Today, the old cattle and vegetable farms have made way for bushveld and buffalos, and with the exception of one farm, all fences have been removed.

But it’s not entirely paradise. Hunting still occurs in places, and because animals can move freely, this puts the future survival of white lions at risk. 

Previously, some white lions have moved into hunting areas, and not been seen again. While Timbavati has done much for conservation of the lowveld wilderness, unscrupulous hunting still poses a threat to these ancient spirits of kings and chiefs.

Contact info:
Walker’s River Camp Tel 083-629-6855 or e-mail
Pat Donaldson Tel 081-798-4005 or e-mail

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