What is the most memorable wildlife sighting you’ve ever had? For many, it’s the heart-pounding adrenaline of witnessing a kill (or a narrow escape). For some, it’s that split-second, once in a lifetime glimpse of one of the Elusive Eleven (a pangolin perhaps). While others cherish hours spent riverside watching the nail-biting action and hearing the thousands upon thousands of thunderous hooves as the Great Migration makes its annual and treacherous trek over rocky crags, straight into crocodile-infested rivers
Mother Nature is both beautiful and captivating, yet cruel and sinister all at the same time. She blesses us with natural miracles, theatrical encounters and astounding beauty, yet moves us to tears with her often a callous and never-ending circle of life. And every now and then, in between all of the beauty and the heartbreak, she bestows upon us some of the rarest and remarkable moments in nature.
Last month, guides and guests at &Beyond Ngala Private Game Reserve experienced one such moment. On the 5th of March, a day they’ll never forget, they were fortunate enough to observe a doting lioness and her four tiny newborns (we’re talking a mere four or five days old!) cubs. Safari addicts can attest that it’s not every day you get to witness the tiny and fragile future generation of a vulnerable species that is fighting to escape extinction.
But it gets better…
Once &Beyond guide Lyle McCabe located the mother and her precious cargo, he carefully positioned the safari vehicle at a respectful 25-metre distance from the den site. At &Beyond, our guides are trained extensively on how to maintain sensitive and responsible viewing practices to ensure not only the safety of all guests but also the livelihood of the wild animals that inhabit the land.
Out of nowhere, a sudden flash of white fur quickly confirmed that this already special sighting was about to become one of the most unusual and unforgettable moments in many a guide’s career. In and amongst its three tawny siblings was indeed an extremely rare white lion cub.
Here are the facts…
A common misconception, white lions are often incorrectly referred to as albinos, when in fact their absence of colour is actually the result of a recessive gene. When two tawny-coloured lions that both carry this recessive white gene come together and successfully mate, they will produce a white cub.
It is important to clarify here that white lions are not a separate subspecies of a lion; they hold the exact same classification (Panthera Leo) as their tawny counterparts, and together, these big cats remain listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
Wildlife enthusiasts will certainly have heard of the world-renowned white lions of the Timbavati. They were first ‘officially’ discovered in 1938 (although local African elders tell tales of their existence for centuries) and this white gene pool is actually unique to the greater Timbavati and southern Kruger National Park area (which is also where &Beyond Ngala Private Game Reserve is situated). It is the only place in the world where white lions occur naturally and their presence has contributed significantly to the region’s healthy biodiversity.
Although sadly, white lions are being bred in the hundreds in captivity, it is believed that only 13 currently exist in the wild, with only two known individuals in the Kruger National Park. In order to help protect and sustain this genetic rarity, the Global White Lions Protection Trust was established. Their aim is to safely and successfully reintroduce captive-bred white lions into their natural habitat and they confirm that between 2006 and 2015, there were 15 white lion cub births recorded in the Timbavati-Umbabat-Klaserie Private Nature Reserves and two in the central Kruger.
Where is the cub now?
This recent (and utterly adorable) white cub, born into the well-known Birmingham pride on &Beyond Ngala, is a conservation coup and everything will be done, wherever possible, to ensure its safety within the reserve. Of course, in order to protect their cubs from threat and predators, lionesses will move their den site every few days making it impossible to keep track of their daily whereabouts.
This litter of four was most recently seen at a den site that was visible from a road in a riverbed, however, the Birmingham female has since moved on and has not been located since. Two male lions were recently seen moving through the area, one of whom had a visible and fresh scar on his face. Perhaps totally unrelated, we are all holding thumbs that the cubs were not involved in this unwitnessed altercation. Bear in mind that only 50% of cubs, the tawny ones included, actually survive their first year.
Good news or bad, we will provide regular updates on our social media channels (@andbeyondtravel and @andbeyondngala) should there be another sighting of the lioness and her cubs. Our rangers and trackers are keeping a close eye on all lion activity and searching for any sign of the Birmingham female and her much talked about litter. Should another den site be located, game drives to the site will be entirely at the discretion of our rangers, in order to ensure the lions’ safety, security and comfort at all times. Every effort will be made so as not to disturb the pride.
&Beyond Ngala shares an unfenced border with the enormous Kruger National Park, and these are wild animals that roam freely, so sightings cannot be guaranteed. This is Mother Nature remember, and nothing is predictable. Expect the unexpected. Always.
White lion cub images © &Beyond Private Guide Daryl Dell.
Male lion images © &Beyond Ngala Guide Roan du Plessis