When we think we have seen it all, new pictures emerge. In early March, some wildlife guides in South Africa spotted a rare sight: that of a white lion cub. The wildlife guides in question work at the Ngala Private Game Reserve, but there sighting happened out in the wild.
According to The National Geographic, one of the guides, Lyle Bruce McCabe, first heard the call of what turned out to be a young cub when he was observing a male lion sleep in the Timbavati river bed.
When he moved closer to the thicket from where the squeaking was coming, he and his colleagues so a white lion cub and its mother.
Wild White Lions
Wild white lions are so rare that McCabe and his colleague Fanny Mathonsi had never seen a white lion cub before. And they are far from being neophytes to the task of tracking wild animals: Mathonsi has been working as an animal tracker in Kruger National Park, where the Ngala Private Game Reserve is located, for about 26 years.
With each new day in Africa, a gazelle wakes up knowing he must outrun the fastest lion or perish. At the same time, a lion stirs and stretches, knowing he must outrun the fastest gazelle or starve. It’s no different for the human race. Whether you consider yourself a gazelle or a lion, you have to run faster than other to survive. – Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum
The reason why white lions are so rare is that a set of circumstances need to occur for them to be born. Scientists have discovered that these white lions are born when both of their parents have a recessive mutation in the gene tasked with making melanins (colored pigments). One parent with that genetic mutation would not produce a white lion, it needs to be both parents.
This happens not only to lions but also to gorillas, giraffes, spider monkeys, and other animals, and not only in Africa but in every continent.
Are white lions albino? Although their unusual white fur may tempt us to call them albino, the truth is that that white cub and other white lions are not albino. Because they do have some pigmentation white lions and other unusually white animals cannot be considered albino but, instead, are considered leucistic. Mostly, they present pigmentation in the eyes.
McCabe estimates that more white animals are born that we are aware of but that many die before reaching adulthood.
It Is Hard for White Animals to Survive
The main reason that white lions are so rare in the wild is not that not many are born (they are) but because there are less likely to survive than their non-white counterparts.
In fact, it is hard for cubs and other young animals to survive in the wild due to the presence of predators in that environment.
It is estimated that only about 50 percent of all lion cubs born in the wild (and this include, of course, white cubs) die within the first year of their lives.
But why is it even harder for white lions to survive? The answer to that question has to do with their unusual color. Because of their white fur, it is a lot harder for white cubs to blend in with the surrounding environment and hide effectively from predators.
Usually, it is easy for lions to hide in the wild due to their tawny color. The natural color of most lions allows them to easily blend in with the plants and tall grass in the background. This is not the case with white lions who stand out to predators against the vegetation. But what makes this even worse is that predators tend to hunt at night, which is when white lions really stand out compared to their tawny-colored counterparts.
This is what makes it particularly hard for white lions to survive in the wild. But, having said all that, some of them do survive and become adults in the wild. So, clearly, some of them are able to overcome their disadvantage even in the wild.
There is, actually, not any real evidence that it is any harder for white lions to survive in the wild. So, scientists cannot categorically state the reasons why they may or may not survive in the wild.
White Lions in Captivity?
Are white lions more likely to survive in captivity? Actually, no. If there is a worse environment for these lions to survive at than the wild, that would be in captivity.
For, while there is no real evidence of whether the wild is the touch on these white lions, there is plenty evidence that suggests that white lions that are bred in captivity will eventually develop (or show) defects.
One Italian study entitled “Cranial malformations in related white lions (Panthera leo krugeri)” found that white lion cubs bred in captivity either died or showed defects. The Italian researchers looked at 19 white lions that had been bred in captivity at an Italian zoological garden. Four of them were stillborn while as many as 13 of them die within their first month. Also, six of them has skull abnormalities. Only one of the white lions they studied lived for a relatively extended period of time, but it grew to show neurological and physical disabilities.
This is one among other reasons why the Association of Zoos and Aquariums has formally forbidden their member institutions from engaging in the breeding of white lions and other animals with genetic abnormalities.
An important point to make is that white lions are not a subspecies of lions, let alone, a species of feline. So, they should not be thought of as an “endangered” species. They are just lions who are born with a genetic abnormality.