White lions: Fighting for them tooth and claw

White lions are one of Africa's rarest beasts thanks to their genetics and a brutal hunting industry. But they have a fierce protector in Linda Tucker. Sophie Morris meets her

A A A

The existence of a rare species of lion, snow white with crystalline blue eyes and endemic to just one spot in South Africa, sounds like a tall tale. They were indeed the stuff of legend, evident in ancient paintings stretching back 15,000 years, until the first verified sighting of one in 1938.

In the intervening years they have all but died out in the wild but are bred successfully in captivity. The Kingdom of the White Lions at West Midland Safari Park, where four cubs were born in 2006, has a pride of eight. The infamous Las Vegas showmen Siegfried & Roy own 23 white lions.

As a tourist attraction, their value is sky high. But their striking appearance and rarity has marked them out not for protection but as hunting trophies worth tens of thousands of dollars.

The white lions, pale because of a lack of pigment rather than albinism, are bred selectively inside camps run for South Africa's brutal canned hunting industry, a sport where tame targets are released into an enclosed area, making them easy prey for those intent on a prized scalp of the king of the jungle.

This bloody industry was exposed in 1996 in a Cook Report investigation. Roger Cook revealed: "You don't even have to be a good shot because the animals are often baited into a fenced area, or drugged so that they become sitting targets. And because the head is the trophy, these regal and endangered creatures are shot at close range in the body and often endure a slow and agonising death."

That was 14 years ago. Successive environment ministers have pledged to halt the business but none have. A ban was overturned last year after determined campaigning from the hunting lobby.

The rare white lions face a further struggle. As a relative of the more common African tawny lion, Panthera leo, the genetic code which marks them out as a subspecies in their own right has not yet been discovered, so they are not even on the list of endangered species.

The tawny lion is also at risk. As a species it is considered vulnerable but estimates of its number vary from 18,000 to 39,000. Some conservationists say the population has plummeted by 90 per cent since the 1980s, but others suggest 30 per cent.

Linda Tucker established the Global White Lion Protection Trust in 2002 and has made it her life mission to reintroduce white lions into the wild and safeguard their future. Since then she has rescued, at great expense, one white lioness and her three white cubs from a zoo and successfully released them into a special reserve. Though the lioness, Marah, died in 2007, her offspring have gone on to form two healthy prides with three new white cubs, the first born outside of captivity since 1991.

Tucker's story, told in her book Mystery of the White Lions, reads like a Hollywood script, and there are plans to make it into a film. Born in South Africa, Tucker came to Britain in the 1980s to study at Cambridge, model and pursue a career in advertising. On holiday in 1991 in Timbavati, Tucker's childhood haunt on the border of the Kruger National Park, a night-time safari went awry. Her group's jeep was surrounded by a pride of angry lions. As they awaited their fate, certain that night would be their last, an old woman carrying a baby on her back and accompanied by a young boy appeared out of the blackness and clambered into the vehicle. Her presence kept the lions at bay while they sent for help. No wonder it is soon to be made into a movie.

Tucker could not forget the incredible incident and returned to Timbavati years later to seek out the woman who had saved her life. Maria Khosa turned out to be renowned in the area, a medicine woman considered a protector of the lions – a lion shaman.

It was at this point that Tucker began to ask questions. The answers were not straightforward, but over the following years she learnt that lions were sacred animals to the indigenous people. The white lions, and their return to the area, is considered auspicious, a warning sign to humans to begin nurturing the earth.

"Our conservation model is to work with lions and humanity," she says. "Once we realise we are totally dependent on nature then we have a chance of surviving together."

Tucker is working with her partner, the ecologist Jason Turner, and American geneticists to determine the gene that could get white lions placed on the endangered list by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. She has high hopes. At the 2009 World Wilderness Congress in Mexico, 54 countries passed a resolution saying they should be protected. In Canada, 220,000 hectares have been designated for the conservation of the similarly revered white bears.

"Cultural beliefs alone should merit their protection," says Tucker, although science may yet be a more powerful talisman.



Mystery of The White Lions by Linda Tucker is published by Hay House, £12.99. Whitelions.org

Suggested Topics
Sport
Thiago Silva pulls Arjen Robben back to concede a penalty
world cup 2014Brazil 0 Netherlands 3: More misery for hosts as Dutch take third place
Sport
Robin van Persie hands his third-place medal to a supporter
Van Persie gives bronze medal to eccentric fan moments after being handed it by Blatter
News
Ian Thorpe had Rio 2016 in his sights
people
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
scienceScientists have developed a material so dark you can't see it...
News
Monkey business: Serkis is the king of the non-human character performance
peopleFirst Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Arts and Entertainment
Blackman: Landscape of children’s literature does not reflect the cultural diversity of young people
booksMalorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Voices
Mrs Brown's Boy: D'Movie has been a huge commercial success
voicesWhen it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Arts and Entertainment
Curtain calls: Madani Younis
theatreMadani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Life and Style
Douglas McMaster says the food industry is ‘traumatised’
food + drinkSilo in Brighton will have just six staple dishes on the menu every day, including one meat option, one fish, one vegan, and one 'wild card'
Life and Style
Once a month, waistline watcher Suran steps into a 3D body scanner that maps his body shape and records measurements with pinpoint accuracy
techFrom heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Sport
Mario Balotelli, Divock Origi, Loic Remy, Wilfried Bony and Karim Benzema
transfersBony, Benzema and the other transfer targets
News
Soft power: Matthew Barzun
peopleThe US Ambassador to London, Matthew Barzun, holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence. He says it's all part of the job
Sport
Joe Root and James Anderson celebrate their record-beaking partnership
cricketEngland's last-wicket stand against India rewrites the history books
News
Gavin Maxwell in Sandaig with one of his pet otters
peopleWas the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?
News
Rowsell says: 'Wearing wigs is a way of looking normal. I pick a style and colour and stick to it because I don't want to keep wearing different styles'
peopleThe World Champion cyclist Joanna Rowsell on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, Accreditation, ITIL)

£70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, A...

C# Developer (HTML5, JavaScript, ASP.NET, Mathematics, Entity)

£30000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

C# Integration Developer (.NET, Tibco EMS, SQL 2008/2012, XML)

£60000 - £80000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Integration...

Biztalk - outstanding opportunity

£75000 - £85000 per annum + ex bens: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: Biztalk Te...

Day In a Page

Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The evolution of Andy Serkis

First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

Blackest is the new black

Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

The Open 2014

Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?