Some tawny African lions carry a recessive gene that blocks the brown pigment in their lustrous coats. When male and female parents carry the gene, there’s a chance they will have white cubs. Some experts believe that the reason white lions occur so rarely in the wild is because these individuals may be more visible to predators and prey due to their eye-catching coats.
Contrary to popular belief, white lions are not albinos or a subspecies of Panthera leo. The rare gene that produces a white lion has been linked to one specific place of origin – the Timbavati. The Timbavati reserve in South Africa contains about 132,000 acres of savanna and borders Kruger National Park. According to Shangaan folklore, white lions have occurred in this region for hundreds of years, although the first documented sighting in this area was in 1938.
In the past three decades, all the wild white lions of the Timbavati have been either hunted or forcibly removed and taken into captivity, where their rare beauty has turned them into commodities for public display, trophy hunting and entertainment. Currently there are about 500 white lions living in captivity across the globe, while none roam free in their home range.
But in 2006 witnesses spotted white lion cubs in the Timbavati, offering proof that the recessive gene is still present in the wild. But the cubs were never seen again, and the future of white lions in this range is uncertain, as there are no international or national laws that protect these animals.
Follow a dedicated team on a controversial mission to bring four captive-bred white lions back to their land of origin. Watch Return of the White Lion, Monday, December 6th at 10 PM et/pt on Nat Geo Wild!