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Africa Geographic Travel

Original source: yearinthewild.com

What a way to end: white lions! I couldn’t have planned a better way to end my epic year of exploring South Africa’s wildest places. I’ve spent the past week at Walker’s River Camp in the Timbavati, a 500 square kilometre private reserve that lies to the west of central Kruger National Park, and because the fences between the two were dropped in 1993, there’s a real sense of wildness here. Timbavati is just one of several huge private reserves that now makes up the greater Kruger National Park.

What makes Timbavati undoubtedly famous is its white lions. I was guided by Pat Donaldson, a private guide who has worked in the area since 1969, and has spent his whole life in the bush of Southern Africa. He probably knows Timbavati better than anyone, and during my time with him, he managed to find us the white lions near the Klaserie River that flows in the west of the reserve.

Ice queen - the white lioness mother
Ice queen – the white lioness mother.

As Pat explained, there are only six white lions occurring naturally in the wild of Africa, and five of them are in Timbavati (apparently there is a white lioness in the south of Kruger, near Pretoriuskop Camp). Well, we saw all five of the Timbavati white lions: two adult lionesses and three cubs.

Early one morning, we spotted the two white lionesses on a ridge near the river, along with a young “tawny” male. We knew that the cubs were probably nearby, but at first we couldn’t see them. Just after sunset, the white lionesses and young male pushed off, down into the reeds of the river bed.

The two white lionesses, on the move towards the river bed, soon after sunrise.
The two white lionesses, on the move towards the river bed, soon after sunrise.

Immediately, a few of the cubs emerged and greeted their mother, one of the lionesses (which has blue eyes – the other has brown eyes). 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 mother went down into the river bed, and gave us one last look before disappearing with the cubs.
The mother went down into the river bed, and gave us one last look before disappearing with the cubs.

These current white lions of Timbavati are the first to be seen for a while, and this rare form of Africa’s lion was first sighted in October 1975 by Lanice van den Heever. They are white from tail to head, and their incredible, mesmerising colouring is not a result of “albinism”, but rather “leucinism”, where the pelt is white but the eyes and skin are pigmented.

As we first saw her. The dawn sunlight catching her white coat.
As we first saw her. The dawn sunlight catching her white coat.

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, it’s pelt will be tawny, so a litter can comprise both white and tawny cubs.

“These particular white lions are extra special,” explained Pat, “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.”

Early morning yawn.
Early morning yawn.

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. I couldn’t get great photos, but it didn’t matter because just to see these white cubs is a wildlife experience of immense proportions! And we were the only people there… which makes it even more special.

White lion cub... an extremely lucky sighting.
White lion cub… an extremely lucky sighting.
The two white cubs and tawny cub in this photo are noticeably smaller than the one tawny cub, because they are a younger litter.
The two white cubs and tawny cub in this photo are noticeably smaller than the one tawny cub, because they are a younger litter.
These photos of the cubs were taken through the reeds, behind which they were hiding. But still, it was a superb experience.
These photos of the cubs were taken through the reeds, behind which they were hiding. But still, it was a superb experience.
Tawny and white cub playing in the river sand.
Tawny and white cub playing in the river sand.
A white cub emerges... how cute is that?
A white cub emerges… how cute is that?

Where were the adults? Pat reckons 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 not hinder the hunting prowess of the white lions? Apparently not. In fact, Pat believes that the white colouring could in fact be an advantage for the white lions. “Antelope, buffalo, giraffe and zebra may be confused and intrigued by the strange colouring,” Pat said, “and they may not realise that the white animal is in fact a lion!”

I could understand this. Lions are generally fascinating creatures, and when they’re not sleeping, they make photogenic subjects. But white lions take things to another level of fascination. I couldn’t take my eyes off them. Their coats are WHITE – not pale beige or cream. They are white like the colour of printing paper. The white lioness mother – the expert hunter – has bright blue eyes, which in itself is an hypnotic feature. No wonder the antelope get confused by the sight of her.

How are those blue eyes? Hypnotic.
How are those blue eyes? Hypnotic.

And it’s no surprise that the local Shangaan people consider the white lion to be a divine creature, with spiritual powers. I can understand why, such is the visual impact of their appearance in the wild bushveld of Timbavati and Kruger.

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Photojournalist Scott Ramsay focuses on exploring the national parks, nature reserves and community conservancies in Southern Africa, taking photographs and interviewing the experts who work in these protected areas. Through his work, he hopes to inspire others to travel to the continent's wild places, which Scott believes are Africa's greatest long term assets. For more, go to www.LoveWildAfrica.com or www.facebook.com/LoveWildAfrica. Partners include Ford Ranger, Goodyear, Cape Union Mart, K-Way, EeziAwn, Frontrunner, Hetzner and Globecomm.

Africa Geographic Travel