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Mystical Big Cats at Home in South African Environmental Hotspot

  • Darren Taylor

South African conservationist breeds one of Africa’s few populations of wild white lions

This is Part 4 of a 5-part series South Africa: Reviving Endangered Wildlife

Go to Part: 1 / 2 / 3 / 4 / 5

White lions are pale, rather than a golden tan hue, because of what scientists call a “recessive” gene. They’re extremely rare, as the genetic aberration occurs in very few lions.

A male white lion resident on Pumba game park in South Africa’s Eastern Cape region

A male white lion resident on Pumba game park in South Africa’s Eastern Cape region

International wildlife protection organizations estimate there are today only about 450 specimens worldwide, with most being in captivity in zoos across the globe and confined to game reserve breeding programs – mostly in southern Africa.

For centuries, fueled by the fact that it was rarely seen, the white lion has occupied a legendary place in the folklore of many African ethnic groups. “Many African peoples consider the white lion to be the most sacred of all the continent’s animals,” said Dale Howarth, a South African conservationist and game reserve owner who has researched the animals for decades.

He continued, “The white lion is actually categorized as ‘The Child of the Sun God.’ If you go back in history, to the days of the pyramids, and the days of King Solomon’s mines in Zimbabwe, [there’s] a link to the Sun God, which is linked to the white lion. The white lion goes a long way back in myth in Africa.”

Conservationist Dale Howarth says the presence of white lions significantly enhances a species-rich part of South Africa known as the ‘Albany Hotspot’

Conservationist Dale Howarth says the presence of white lions significantly enhances a species-rich part of South Africa known as the ‘Albany Hotspot’

White lion: ‘added value’ or ‘threat’ to biodiversity?

Yet while the white lion is undoubtedly one of the world’s most mythical creatures, it’s also one of the most controversial. When three South African ecologists recently warned that the white lion was a threat to indigenous wildlife, it was the latest salvo in an ongoing difference of opinion between those who support captive breeding of the beasts, and those who oppose it.

In their report, the environmental experts cited the white lion as an example of “artificially maintained color forms” in animals, bred because people were fascinated with the abnormal – not because it enhanced biodiversity. They referred to the creatures as “marketing strategies” for luxury game parks to reap profits from tourists and “fashion trends” purchased by the superrich as pets for as much as $140,000 per cub.

Howarth says his white lions are free to roam all over his reserve, unlike others that are kept in confined spaces, such as zoos

Howarth says his white lions are free to roam all over his reserve, unlike others that are kept in confined spaces, such as zoos

Such comments don’t bother Howarth, who a few years ago became dedicated to establishing a pride of white lions that survived and bred in the bush without human interference. His wildlife reserve, Pumba, in South Africa’s Eastern Cape province, is now home to one of only two populations of “free-ranging” white lions in southern Africa.

Howarth is a respected conservationist who was recently contracted by the World Bank to manage the expansion of another Eastern Cape game reserve – the Addo Park, which is the largest elephant sanctuary in the world.

According to Howarth, wild white lions “add value” to an area that’s already one of the planet’s most species-rich regions. His park is in a part of South Africa scientists refer to as the “Albany Hotspot.” It’s a section of land between two major rivers, the Keiskamma and the Sundays. It contains the most diverse species of animals and plants in the world, after the Amazon Jungle in South America and the Cape Floral Kingdom – also in South Africa.

White lions recently successfully bred in the wild in the Eastern Cape

White lions recently successfully bred in the wild in the Eastern Cape

‘Canned hunting’

Up until the mid 1970s, said Howarth, “everyone thought the white lion was just a story, just a legend.” But then, he explained, something “dramatic” happened at South Africa’s Timbavati game reserve, the ramifications of which are still being felt in international conservation.

In 1975, British environmental researcher Chris McBride discovered the first officially recorded white lions - three cubs in two prides at Timbavati.

Howarth explained, “Chris at the end of his research was concerned that they wouldn’t survive on their own because of their conspicuous white color. He captured these three animals and sent them to a London zoo. That was the end of the white lion out in the wild, and the beginning of breeding the white lion in zoos.”

Opponents of man’s breeding of white lions argue that McBride’s action also sparked the beginning of trophy hunting for the unique animals. Professional hunting companies in Africa now acquire white lions, mostly males, and offer hunters from across the world the opportunity to shoot them for as much as $50,000 per animal.

Conservationists say many white lions are “bred for death,” to be shot in enclosed camps – a phenomenon known as “canned hunting.”

White lion cubs born recently on Pumba Game Reserve

White lion cubs born recently on Pumba Game Reserve

Howarth said he condemned “any type of captive hunting or canned hunting” for “any type of animal.” He also emphasized that his white lion project was not a “money spinning scheme” aimed at attracting foreign tourists and their dollars, but had a “strong conservation component.”

The game park owner told VOA, “Look, obviously I have to keep this reserve viable and to do that, it must make money. But my main motive is to see the white lion back in its natural environment. My initiative was to get the white lion gene back into the wild.”

More than pets

Howarth acknowledged his project had been met with resistance from some fellow conservationists. “They thought I was crazy for wanting this, because they insisted, and some still insist, that white lions are nothing more than pets and can’t survive in the wild. But I wanted to prove it can be done.”

He said he didn’t “just jump” into the decision to buy white lions, but after intensive research into the animals, he was convinced that they could “thrive” independently of humans in the bush.

Howarth says his white lions are hunting animals such as zebra on his reserve, even though some of his fellow conservationists previously insisted that the ‘domesticated’ animals wouldn’t be able to survive in the wild

Howarth says his white lions are hunting animals such as zebra on his reserve, even though some of his fellow conservationists previously insisted that the ‘domesticated’ animals wouldn’t be able to survive in the wild

“I was fortunate enough to acquire a pure white male of 12 months old back in 2005, with two split females – split being tawny in color but carrying the white gene. They were also about a year old,” Howarth recalled.

After a year in a “rehabilitation” enclosure, he released the white lions into the wilds of the 6,500 hectare park. To do this, Howarth said, he had to ignore the “negativism” of some fellow environmentalists who maintained the “tame” animals would never be able to hunt for themselves.

“Within a week they were catching their own food. Today they’re totally, totally independent, self sustaining,” he emphasized.

White lion cubs

Animal experts also maintained that Howarth’s “domesticated” white lions wouldn’t breed in the wild. “In a free-ranging environment, their breeding habits are not controlled,” he explained.

A ‘normal’ lion that doesn’t carry the recessive white gene, showing tawny, golden coloration

A ‘normal’ lion that doesn’t carry the recessive white gene, showing tawny, golden coloration

But Pumba’s white lions had recently again proved their detractors wrong, said Howarth. “They’ve had three litters of cubs, of which two have been pure white, and I have a thriving population of white lion which are back in the wild for the first time.”

He said “every bit of my dream” had thereby been realized, although he acknowledged that his vision for the establishment of wild white lions in South Africa remained “at odds” with the beliefs of some other environmentalists.

Howarth was, however, unapologetic, stating, “My white lions are out in the wild, living as naturally as they possibly can, in the African bush. They’re not cooped up in some cage on the other side of the world, or waiting for a hunter’s bullet in some fenced-off camp somewhere.”

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