White Lion Animal Facts

Rare recessive trait causes white skin coloration

Male and female white African Lions (Panthera leo)
Male and female white African Lions (Panthera leo).

Johann van Heerden / Getty Images

White lions are part of the general classification of lions, Panthera leon. They are not albinos; they lack the tawny coloration due to a rare condition that results in reduced pigmentation. Because of their majestic appearance, they have been revered as sacred beings by tribes in southern Africa, but have also been hunted to extinction in the wild. They are now being reintroduced in protected areas by the Global White Lion Protection Trust.

Fast Facts

  • Scientific Name: Panthera leo
  • Common Names: White lion
  • Order: Carnivora
  • Basic Animal Group: Mammalia
  • Size: Up to 10 feet long and 4 feet high for males and up to 6 feet long and 3.6 feet for females
  • Weight: Up to 530 pounds for males and up to 400 pounds for females
  • Life Span: 18 years
  • Diet: Small birds, reptiles, hoofed mammals
  • Habitat: Savannah, woodland, desert
  • Population: 100s in captivity and 13 in the wild
  • Conservation Status: Vulnerable
  • Fun Fact: White lions are symbols of leadership and pride to local communities in the Timbavati region.

Description

White lions have a rare recessive trait that causes their white skin coloration. Unlike albino animals that lack pigmentation, white lions’ rare gene produces lighter pigmentation. Whereas albinos have pink or red coloration to their eyes and noses, white lions have blue or gold eyes, black features on their noses, “eye-liner,” and dark patches behind their ears. Male white lions may have white, blonde, or pale hair in their manes and on the ends of their tails.

Male White Lion
The white lion is a result of a genetic condition is known as leucism, a rarity where a recessive mutation in the gene causes the lion’s coat to vary from near-white to blonde. Boy_Anupong / Getty Images

Habitat and Distribution

The natural habitat of a white lion includes savannas, woodlands, and desert areas. They are indigenous to the Greater Timbavati region in southern Africa and are currently protected at the Central Kruger Park in South Africa. After being hunted to extinction in the wild, white lions were reintroduced in 2004. With the ban on trophy hunting in the Timbavati region and surrounding nature preserves, the first white cubs were born in the area in 2006. Kruger Park had its first occurrence of white lion cub births in 2014.

Diet and Behavior

White lions are carnivores, and they eat a variety of herbivorous animals. They hunt gazelles, zebras, buffaloes, wild hares, tortoises, and wildebeests. They have sharp teeth and claws that allow them to attack and kill their prey. They hunt by stalking their prey in packs, patiently waiting for the right time to strike. Lions typically kill their prey by strangulation and the pack consumes the carcass at the site of the kill.

Reproduction and Offspring

White Lion Cub
This is a two week old white lion cub. Tambako the Jaguar / Moment / Getty Images

Like tawny lions, white lions reach sexual maturity between ages three and four. Most white lions are bred and born in captivity, usually in zoos. Those in captivity may mate on a yearly basis, while those in the wild mate about every two years. Lion cubs are born blind and rely on their mother for the first two years of life. A lioness usually gives birth to two to four cubs in a litter.

In order for there to be a chance that some of the offspring will be white lions, the parents either need to be white lions or carry the rare white lion gene. Since the animal must bear two recessive alleles to exhibit the trait, there are three scenarios in which a white lion cub might be born. If both parents are tawny and carry the gene, there is a 25% chance the offspring will be a white cub; if one parent is a white lion and the other is tawny with the gene, there is a 50% chance the offspring will be a white cub; and if both parents are white lions, there is a 100% chance the offspring will be a white cub.

Threats

The biggest threat to white lions is uncontrolled trading and hunting of lions. Trophy hunting of dominant males of prides has reduced the gene pool, making white lion occurrences much more rare. Additionally, programs that wish to breed white lions for profit modify their genes.

In 2006, two cubs were born in the Umbabat Nature Reserve and two more were born in the Timbavati Reserve. None of the cubs, including the tawny ones, survived due to the killing of the dominant male lions of both prides for trophies. Since 2008, 11 white lion cubs have been spotted in and around the reserves of Timbavati and Umbabat.

Genetics

Young White Lion
 John McKeen / Moment / Getty Images

White lions are leucistic, which means they have a rare gene that causes them to have less melanin and other pigments than non-leucistic animals. Melanin is a dark pigment found in skin, hair, fur, and eyes. In leucism, there is a total or partial lack of pigment producing cells known as melanocytes. The rare recessive gene responsible for leucism is a color inhibitor that causes the lion to lack darker pigmentation in some areas, but retain pigmentation in the eyes, nose, and ears.

Due to their light skin, some have suggested that white lions are at a genetic disadvantage when compared to their tawny counterparts. Many people have argued that white lions are unable to camouflage themselves and hide from predators and marauding male lions in the wild. In 2012, PBS released a series called White Lions, which followed the survival of two female white lion cubs and the struggles they experienced. This series, as well as a 10-year scientific study on the topic, demonstrated just the opposite. In their natural habitat, white lions were able to camouflage themselves and were just as much of an apex predator as wild tawny lions.

Cultural and Social Significance

In countries like Kenya and Botswana, white lions are symbols of leadership, pride, and royalty, and are viewed as national assets. They are considered sacred to the local Sepedi and Tsonga communities of the Greater Timbavati region.

Conservation Status

White Lion With Cubs
Colin Langford / Getty Images

Since white lions are included in the general classification for lions (Panthera leo), they are designated as vulnerable according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). In 2015, the conservation authority in South Africa proposed to down-list the conservation status of all lions to Least Concern. Doing so would put white lions at serious risk of becoming extinct in the wild once again. The Global White Lion Protection Trust is currently pushing for the classification to be moved to Endangered.

Sources

  • Bittel, Jason. "Rare White Lion Cub Seen In South Africa". National Geographic, 2018, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2018/03/white-lion-cub-born-wild-south-africa-kruger-leucistic/.
  • "Global White Lion Protection Trust Briefing". Parliamentary Monitoring Group, 2008, https://pmg.org.za/committee-meeting/8816/.
  • "Key White Lion Facts". Global White Lion Protection Trust, https://whitelions.org/white-lion/key-facts-about-the-white-lion/.
  • "Lion". IUCN Red List Of Threatened Species, 2014, https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/15951/115130419#taxonomy.
  • Mayer, Melissa. “Life Cycle of the Lion.” Sciencing, 2 Mar. 2019, https://sciencing.com/life-cycle-lion-5166161.html.
  • PBS. White Lions. 2012, https://www.pbs.org/wnet/nature/white-lions-introduction/7663/.
  • Tucker, Linda. On White Lion Conservation, Culture, And Heritage. Parliamentary Monitoring Group, 2008, pp. 3-6, http://pmg-assets.s3-website-eu-west-1.amazonaws.com/docs/080220linda.pdf.
  • Turner, Jason. "White Lions - All The Facts And Questions Answered". Global White Lion Protection Trust, 2015, https://whitelions.org/white-lion/faqs/. Accessed 6 Aug 2019.