Sunday, 7 March 2010

The White Lions of the Timbavati.

The following blog is compliments of Lianne Steenkamp, who is currently filming and researching the White Lions of the Timbavati. We would like to thank her for sharing some of her knowledge with us.

In the beginning of December 2009 the Timbavati was suddenly enriched with a new pride, and it appeared to be quite a special pride… This pride, unknown to most of us in the Timbavati, consisted of two large females and four cubs, of which two were miraculously white.

And as it now seems that this pride is here to stay, it would be good to take a closer look at their background, where they have come from, and what white lions are all about…

A recessive gene, carried by some of the lion prides in and around the Timbavati, can cause a lack of pigmentation in some lion cubs which are born within these prides. Though often mistaken for albinism, this lack of pigmentation is known as leucism, in which the pelage is white but eyes and skin are pigmented.

The white mutation, which affects two of the pigments involved in coat colouration, is expressed only when two conditions pertain – both parents carry the recessive white gene, and the cub inherits the recessive gene of each parent. If a cub receives a dominant ‘tawny’ gene from either parent, its pelage will be tawny. Therefore, a litter may be compromised of both tawny and white cubs.

It was around 1979 that the Timbavati became famous for its white lions, as researcher Chris McBride was the first one ever to record white lion cubs. Since then several white lions have been seen in the Timbavati and the surrounding reserves as well as a part of the Kruger National Park, and it seems that they only occur in this particular area, as they have never been seen in other parts of Africa.

Last year a property north from the Timbavati announced that their resident pride, the “Timbavati Pride”, had two white cubs that were first seen at the end of May when they were only a few weeks old. Since then Ntsiri, which lies in the Umbabat Nature Reserve, has had many sightings of the two white wonders and their pride.

The Timbavati Pride at first consisted of three young females and four young males who were born in the Jacaranda Pride in 2004, and broke away from their parent pride in 2007. The seven youngsters formed their own pride, but three of the males became nomads not long after and managed to take dominance over the Machatton Pride in late 2008, when they were about five years old. It is unknown what happened to the fourth male.

The remaining females stayed up north, and last year they had two litters of cubs.

I started filming the cubs in early September last year. The pride originally consisted of three large females with two litters of cubs; two tawny cubs born around March, and four slightly younger cubs of which two tawny and two white.

This pride was dominated by two fully-grown males, of which the more dominant male has a scar across his eye.

During the last part of 2009, three young males with a reputation for killing other lions, appeared in the area on a regular basis. I started seeing less and less of the females and their cubs, and we even battled to find tracks of the pride towards the end of November. I suspected the lionesses had moved away a bit to avoid the males who formed a threat to their offspring.

When I heard about the ‘new arrivals’ in the Timbavati early December and I was told about the formation of the pride, I noticed that this pride was particularly similar to the pride I had been filming in the Umbabat.

It was then that I realized that there was a possibility that the Timbavati Pride had moved away from its own territory, and ended up in the Timbavati.

In January I finally saw the ‘new pride’ for myself and I identified the females by their noses, some scars, a missing tooth, the black gums, whisker spots, their size and colouration, and at last, their behaviour. This was, without a doubt the pride from Ntsiri, originally known as the Timbavati Pride.

So here we are… The Timbavati has been enriched with a wonderful pride – two strong, big females with two good looking young males and two white, feisty young females -, now known as the ‘Kubasa Ngala’, which is Shangaan for ‘White Lions’…


  1. thanks for the update mrs steenkamp!

    hope they are all still doing well - although i hear the machaton lioness they attacked eventually died last week? nice to have some good strong females around, hopefully they can keep all danger away, especially as i hear the mahlathini males are being seen in the area again; do you know which lionesses they were with last week?

    only thing i am not happy about with the white lions is their choice of prey! how many giraffes have they been killing! clearly learnt that from the jacaranda pride that used to specialise in giraffes for a period...

    regards to everyone that side...see you all next weekend!


  2. I really enjoyed your explanation about the white lions and the photo are excellent. How exciting for you to realize that it was the pride that you had previously seen and studied.