White lions are found in only one place on Earth — the Greater Timbavati-Kruger National Park region of South Africa. This unique specie of lion is gravely endangered and only twelve of these magnificent animals roam free today.
According to traditional African history, white lions have been seen in the Timbavati area for centuries, and were considered to be sacred. The name of their ancestral territory, Timbavati, means “the place where the white lions came down to Earth.”
Because of human encroachment, these stunning creatures are in danger of extinction. Some environmentalists assumed that their white coat prevented them from hunting successfully. This led to the lions being relocated from the wild, sold to zoos and circuses worldwide, and brought up as tourist attractions. Tragically, they ended up as prey to the notorious ‘canned hunting’ operators in South Africa, where they are speed-bred in cages to be killed as victims of the canned hunting industry.
Thanks to one courageous woman, Linda Tucker, and her partner and lion-ecologist, Jason Turner, the white lion are being returned to the wild and beginning to thrive once again in their ancestral territory.
Linda grew up in South Africa during the Apartheid, and left to pursue her career in the UK as a model and ad executive. But it was a near-death experience on one of her trips back to South Africa in 1991 that changed the direction of her life forever. In the thrill of reckless enthusiasm, she and some friends found themselves in a broken down jeep in the midst of a lion pride in which a lioness had just given birth. They were terrified, and some of the group started yelling for help.
Then suddenly, a person emerged out of the darkness. Walking in a slow trance-like state, she walked right through the lions and got into the jeep. The lions became subdued and they were able to go for help.
The group later learned that the woman that rescued them was a Shangaan Shaman woman named Maria Khosa, also known as the Lion Queen of the Timbavati.
Linda couldn’t get this life-threatening encounter out of her mind, and three years later, left her glamorous lifestyle as a model to become a student of Maria Khosa, and began her research into the mysteries of the White Lion.
In 2002, Linda founded the Global White Lion Protection Trust with Jason Turner, and together, they have committed their lives to protecting these magnificent creatures. Linda has written several books including “Saving the White Lion” and “Mystery of The White Lion.”
With the relationships Frontiers has built with our operators over the years, we were invited to visit the Global White Lion Protection Trust. Imagine how completely thrilled and honored I felt when they asked me to join them on their scientific monitoring drives.
Linda and I met up in a little town called Hazyview, which was about 1 ½ hours’ drive from Sabi Sand Wildtuin where I was staying the night at Rattray’s on Mala Mala.
Our drive along the Panorama Route of R40 took us past spectacular views of Blyde River Canyon, with sheer edges of red and orange rock, and lush subtropical foliage dropping into the riverbed below. Blyde River Canyon is the second largest canyon in Africa after Fish River Canyon in Namibia, and is known as one of the great natural wonders on the continent.
As we drove along the twisting, curving roads, we spent the next couple of hours chatting as if we were long lost friends. I was captivated by her strength and courage as she shared stories of her constant struggles to protect the lions from the canned trophy hunting industry, poachers, unscrupulous zoo executives, and commercial traders that regard these rare animals as high-income commodities. In spite of death threats against her, Linda continues her fight to save these splendid creatures.
Linda also believes that conservation education is critical, and in 2004, The Global White Lion Trust launched the Star Lion Education initiative, using arts and theatre to reconnect youth with a sense of pride while using the white lion as a cultural symbol. The program was such a success, that the youth group had the extraordinary honor of performing their play for Nelson Mandela at a private audience in Johannesburg.
We stopped at the Star Lion Center and enjoyed a traditional lunch at the Sibonile Day Care Center. The children, ages 2-6 years old, brought tears to my eyes as they recited poems and verses from the Bible. They were so sweet and well-behaved. For some reason, they also wanted to touch my nose and stroke my hair. The kids are given a hot meal, and for some, this is the only meal they have all day. I could have spent hours with these precious little stars, but we needed to get back on the road in order to arrive in time for an afternoon lion monitoring drive.
The Global White Lion Protection Trust is in a protected area neighboring South Africa’s Timbavati Reserve, in the heart of their ancestral territories. Jason was there waiting for us, and we wasted no time getting started.
Jason explained how the scientific monitoring team has successfully reintroduced the lion back into the wild. The team goes out at sunrise and sunset to track the lions, ensuring that they are safe and have successfully hunted for themselves. The scientist are careful not to invade the lions space and don’t allow photography.
He went on to explain that for nearly a decade, scientists from the Global White Lion Protection Trust led an international collaborative study involving seven countries (South Africa, USA, China, Korea, Canada, Namibia and the UK), and did research on Snow Leopards, Tigers, and White Lion. This joint study resulted in a genetic breakthrough: the confirmation of a “genetic marker” for the White Lion.
We didn’t drive long before we saw two of the male white lions, along with two female Golden Lions. I couldn’t believe how much larger the white lions were compared to the Golden. I sat in silence watching these beautiful animals, trying to relish every moment. I thought to myself, I wonder how long they will exist. Will my grandchildren and their children have the opportunity to see this glorious creature? Or will this critically endangered species fall prey to poaching? Will their bones be sold illegally to be used for Chinese medicine? A practice that has caused a rapid decline in the lion population and must be stopped.
I enjoyed a delicious lantern lit dinner under the stars on the deck of my treehouse with Linda and Jason. My home for the night was a solo treehouse in the middle of their 4,500 private acre reserve, equipped with running water, toilet, shower, and tea and coffee for the morning. Linda and Jason handed me a two way radio before they left and instructed me on how to call them should I need anything. Of course, I fell fast asleep while listening to the sounds of Africa and didn’t wake until the sun’s orange glow softly crept over my face.
The sighting of a White Lion is rare and rewarding. An experience I won’t easily forget.