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The white lion is a rare color mutation of the Kruger subspecies of lion (Panthera leo krugeri) found in some wildlife reserves in South Africa and in zoos around the world. White lions are not a separate subspecies and are thought to be indigenous to the Timbavati region of South Africa for centuries, although the earliest recorded sighting in this region was in 1938. Regarded as divine by locals, white lions first came to public attention in the 1970s in Chris McBride's book The White Lions of Timbavati. Up until 2009, when the first pride of white lions was reintroduced to the wild, it was widely believed that the white lion could not survive in the wild. It is for this reason that a large part of the population of white lions now reside in zoos.
White lions are not albinos. Their white colour is caused by a recessive trait derived from a less-severe mutation in the same gene that causes albinism, distinct from the gene responsible for white tigers. They vary from blonde to near-white. This coloration does not appear to disadvantage their survival. The white lions of the Global White Lion Protection Trust (GWLPT) have been reintroduced into their natural habitat and have been hunting and breeding successfully without human intervention for a significant amount of time.
A recessive gene gives white lions their unusual colors. A similar gene also produces white tigers. White lions can therefore be selectively bred for zoos, animal shows and wildlife parks. Such breeding involves inbreeding and can result in inbreeding depression (genetic defects, reduced fertility, and physical defects), although this has not yet been found to cause hind-limb paralysis or serious heart defects, which would indicate a severe level of inbreeding. People are concerned about white lions mating with lions of other alleles, due to possible extinction of the white lion. However, this is not valid as the offspring will inherit the recessive white gene and therefore make it possible to produce white offspring in a later generation. Some critics maintain that white lions should not be introduced into the wild because of the inbreeding that has taken place in zoos and breeding camps. However, ethical reintroduction programs such as The Global White Lion Protection Trust have ensured through the use of scientific methodologies that the lions in their program are not inbred.
In 1979, three litters containing white lions were recorded in Kruger National Park. In March, a female lion with three white cubs was observed near Tshokwane. In September, three white cubs (from two different lionesses) were seen. Another litter of white female cubs was captured from Kruger National Park and treated for sarcoptic mange. A white lion was observed in the Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Game Reserve in Zululand.
In May 2007 four white lion cubs were born at Jurques Zoo in France. The cubs consisted of one male and three females. Each cub weighed approximately 1.5 kilograms (3.3 pounds) at birth, and all four were in good health. However, they needed to be hand fed because their mother was not taking proper care of them.
Belgrade zoo in Serbia has 12 white lions. In 2010 four were born by two female lions, each weighing about 1.5 kg (3.3 pounds). Four additional white lions were born in April 2011. One more cub was born in October 2013, but died soon after.
In 2004, four white lions arrived at West Midland Safari Park, the only white lions in the United Kingdom. Roland (or Rowland), the male, and three lionesses (Marin, Natasha, and JoAnn; spellings undocumented) settled into the Kingdom of the White Lion exhibit at the park very well. In 2008, one lioness had four cubs in the space of 9 hours, doubling the total to eight in England. (A documentary, in two parts, is available at YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_vLXVe1QOEI, which shows the nursing mother giving birth and taking excellent care of her four cubs, and at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pogrcbuybRY, which shows the Park Manager and assistant rangers caring for them, naming them, and releasing them into the Park). The pride at the Park in Worcestershire is the only pride of white lion in the UK and is also breeding very well.
In late 2012, newspapers and bloggers reported that the four cubs born at West Midlands Safari Park, in 2008 (names: Caspar, Kiara, Lara and Toto; spellings undocumented) had been sold to perform in a Japanese circus. It is alleged that the lions were given to British businessman Jim Clubb, who runs Amazing Animals, which also goes by the name Heythrop Zoological Gardens, in Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire. The animal rights organization Lion Aid, Ltd., quoted Mr. Clubb as saying, first, "No comment," then, "I've no idea if the West Midland Safari Park knew they were going to the circus, that's a matter for them." Bob Lawrence, the Head Keeper of West Midland Safari Park, who appears often in the YouTube videos raising the cubs, told the Worcester News, a local newspaper, that he "would never have supplied the four white lion cubs if he had known they would have ended up performing in a Japanese circus."
In 2012, the Karachi Zoo, Pakistan, purchased a juvenile male and juvenile female white lion. They are expected to breed.
Pafos Zoo, an Animal and Bird wildlife park in Cyprus, received two seven-month old white lion cubs in 2011.
White lions are not albinos but are leucistic. They have pigment visible in the eyes (which may be the normal hazel or golden color, blue-gray, or green-gray), paw pads and lips. Blue-eyed white lions exist and may be selectively bred. The leucistic trait is due to a recessive mutation in the gene for Tyrosinase (TYR), an enzyme responsible for the production of melanins. More severe mutations in the same gene have been found to cause albinism in many species, while another less severe mutation in the same gene is responsible for the Chinchilla coloring trait seen in several mammals. Reduced pigment production decreases the deposition of pigment along the hair shaft, restricting it to the tips. The less pigment there is along the hair shaft, the paler the lion. As a result, "white" lions range from blonde to near-white. The males have pale manes and tail tips instead of the usual dark tawny or black.
The Latin name of Panthera leo krugeri is not limited to white lions. It applies to all subspecies of South African lions, the prides of which are mostly located in Kruger National Park and nearby game reserves.
White specimens usually have a yellowish-brown or golden eye color which is very similar to their tawny kin, though some have bluish coloring like the white tiger (in which the white coloration is due to a mutation in a different gene).
In 2003, the Global White Lion Protection Trust (WLPT) initiated the first ever reintroduction of white lions to their natural endemic range - the Greater Timbavati region in South Africa. Preliminary results have shown that the hunting success of the white lion pride was comparable to or higher than the wild prides ('normal' coloured / tawny) of the Timbavati itself (Turner 2005).[full citation needed] This pride of "all" white lions has shattered the misperception that white lions cannot hunt successfully (within their natural endemic habitat) due to a perceived lack of camouflage. The long-term objective of the WLT is to restore the natural balance by reintroducing an integrated pride/s of white and tawny lions within their endemic range. White lions are a unique contribution to the biodiversity of the region and are revered by the local communities that hold them sacred.
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