For hundreds of years, the white lion was thought to be a figment of legend circulating South Africa – similar to unicorns, dragons, and fairies; creatures that are not real, but celebrated in culture, literature, and certain beliefs. In the early 1900’s, it was discovered that white lions are, in fact, real animals living on the earth. Because of the relatively recent discovery of these creatures, white lions have not been studied to the fullest extent, and there is quite a bit of controversy regarding their maintenance for the future.
Let’s begin with what most people do know: white lions look just like lions, only their fur is white. Easy enough! That being said, there are many questions and claims surrounding white lions, which hold truths that most people are not aware of.
To begin, many people also believe that white lions are a separate subspecies of lions, which is not true. As aforementioned, white lions are exactly the same as brown lions, with the exception of their color, but that slight difference does not classify it as a subspecies. This means that white lions live in the same conditions – in the African Sahara – eat the same foods, hunt the same way, and function exactly as brown lions do. Some people say that white lions are indigenous to the Timbavati region of South Africa, and that they have been living there as a “subspecies of lion” for centuries, although the earliest recorded sighting in this region was in 1938.
Contrary to belief, white lions are not albinos; the white color is called leucism, caused by a recessive trait derived from a mild mutation that is similar to the albino strain, but not as severe. Depending on the extremity of the mutation, white lions can vary from having blonde fur to very white fur. This trait also slightly impacts the pigment of the effected lions’ eyes, lips, and paws. Most lions have hazel or golden eyes, while white lions have blue or blue-gray eyes. Similarly, the paws pads and lips of white lions are pink, whereas brown lions have black paw pads and lips. However, their skin color is the same as brown lions, which is how we know they are not albino.
Because white lions are a rarity, people are concerned that the white lion will be extinct in the coming years. To counteract this fear, there have been breeding programs instilled to mate lions with the recessive gene in hopes of producing more white lions. However, this type of breeding can result in a certain extent of inbreeding, where two related lions mate, which can in turn create genetic defects in the offspring. Our white lioness, Flora, at our Living with Big Cats program, for example, is slightly cross-eyed and duck footed, meaning that her paws face outwards when she walks. This likely occurred as a result of her parents having been closely related to one another.
Some critics maintain that white lions should not be introduced into the wild because deformations, even if they are small like Flora’s, can hinder their ability to thrive in a natural environment. However, although a mutation and abnormality, the coloration – or discoloration – does not appear to disadvantage their existence in the wild. It is only due to inbreeding that results in deformations that survival rates of white lions in the wild would be less than that of brown lions.
On another hand, some people question whether white lions are safe in captivity, as, unfortunately, many farms with white lions gain a profit from participating in canned hunting, which enables hunters from all over the world to shoot and kill white lions among other animals. There is a lot being done from multiple support groups and conservationists to discover the best way to maintain these beautiful animals, keeping them out of harms way. Although what will be done to preserve the white lion remains an issue with many arguments, we hope that somehow white lions will be able to not only survive, but to thrive.