Whenever I am on safari the one thing that everybody wants to see more than anything else is the lion. To see it is a great experience but probably the most magical would be to see one of the famous white lions from the Timbavati region of Kruger Park.
Accounts of white lions have been around for centuries in Africa, but have often been dismissed as superstition. It has been part of African folklore since prehistoric times and according to legend white lions were children of the Sun God, sent to earth as gifts. Oral traditions recall the appearance of white lions over 400 years ago during the reign of Queen Numbi in the region now known as Timbavati. A shining star was seen to fall to the ground, but when Queen Numbi and her people approached, they found it to be a shining ball of metal, brighter than the sun. Queen Numbi, who was an elderly and infirm woman, was swallowed by its light and received by strange beings. When she emerged again, she had been restored to health and youth and a white lion was born in the area immediately after.
Strong claims of sightings started to surface in 1928. Scattered reports continued over the next 47 years, until confirmation of the colouration came in 1975 when a litter containing two white cubs was seen at Timbavati Game Reserve, part of Kruger National Park. The discovery came as researcher and conservationist Chris McBride was studying lions at Timbavati and when alone with a tracker for the day and they spotted a lioness called ‘Tabby’ at a kill. With her were three new cubs, one tawny, and two which were as white as polar bears. They were roughly two weeks old. The white specimens proved to be male and female. The McBride Family named them Temba (Zulu for ‘hope’) and Tombi (‘girl’). The standard-coloured cub was called Vela (‘surprise’). Their story is documented in the book “The White Lions of Timbavati”. McBride decided to capture Temba, Tombi and Vela (although tawny, Vela carried the gene for white). The cubs were taken to the National Zoo in Pretoria, South Africa where Temba produced several cubs before his death in 1996. Most white lions today are descendants from these lions.
These wonders of nature are not completely albino, the freakish lack of pigmentation which appears in a great many species from time to time, including humans. Like polar bears they are simply white. The white colour is caused by a recessive gene known as chinchilla or colour inhibitor. They vary from blonde through to near white, however some can also be red. This coloration gives white lions a distinct disadvantage in nature because they are highly visible.
White lions have been extinct in the wild since 1997 and the last wild cub was believed to have been born about 12 years ago but two have been born recently in the Umbabat Private Nature Reserve bordering the Kruger National Park. These are 100 percent wild free-ranging lions and the birth of the cubs is an entirely natural, normal occurrence so maybe your next holiday, that safari you promised yourself could bring you face to face with one of these mythical beasts which are more than a national treasure, as they truly are a global treasure.
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