Blink and you could very well, like us, (almost) miss it. Six of us, film crew included, clambered into an open safari vehicle well before dawn one wintry morning two weeks ago. We had one very specific mission: to locate, photograph and film the two remarkably rare white lion cubs currently living on &Beyond Ngala Private Game Reserve in South Africa.
History (finally) repeats itself
Before going into the details of our adventure, some Ngala history and some very important statistics are necessary. Our guides are constantly asked how many white lions are left in the world. Although there are many white lions sadly being bred in captivity, there are currently only three documented white lions in the world that are living freely in the wild. And the breaking news is that, not one, but two (!) of these three free-roaming wild white lions can now be seen at &Beyond Ngala Private Game Reserve (Ngala, which, rather aptly, is the local Shangaan word for lion).
&Beyond Ngala is a 14 700 hectare (36 500 acre) Big Five private game reserve that shares unfenced borders with the Kruger National Park and Timbavati Game Reserve. You may have heard of the world-renowned white lions of Timbavati. They were first ‘officially’ discovered in 1938 (although local African elders have regaled tales of their existence for centuries) and this white gene pool is actually unique to the greater Timbavati and southern Kruger area (where &Beyond Ngala 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. The famous white lions of Timbavati had long since disappeared from the area, seemingly never to return, until one year ago.
Back in March of last year, &Beyond guide Lyle McCabe made an extraordinary discovery: Ngala had a new addition. Out of sensitivity for the fragile litter, we waited a few weeks before releasing the groundbreaking news that a beautiful white lion cub had made its first official debut on &Beyond Ngala (read all about it here). The heart-warming photo of this precious new cargo, just a few days’ old, being delicately carried in the powerful jaws of its mother (captured by &Beyond private guide Daryl Dell) immediately went viral and captured the hearts of wildlife lovers around the world.
This fragile new addition was one of four cubs born to the Birmingham female of the well-known and well-documented Birmingham pride, and, although it wasn’t officially announced at the time, another female within the same pride also gave birth during the same approximate timeframe. Astonishingly, within her litter of just three cubs, two were white.
Battle for dominance
Statistically, the survival rate of lion cubs, especially the white ones, is rather grim (only 50% of lion cubs, even the tawny ones, survive their first year), so when a new coalition of two healthy, strong and previously unseen male lions (the Ross males) suddenly emerged from the north last year, everyone feared the worst.
Fierce battles for pride dominance ensued between the (then) dominant males and the new competing Ross males. In the end, the Ross males were victorious. The former leaders moved out and as is customary when new males take over a pride, all of the Birmingham pride’s cubs, including the prized white trio, were sadly killed by the new victors in an effort to eliminate competition and bolster their own gene pool.
So, what are white lions called? This is another common question our guides get asked and the answer is an important one. A white lion is NOT an albino lion — this is a common misconception. White lions are leucistic, which means that a recessive gene mutation actually makes their fur white, while their skin and eyes retain their natural pigment. There is no specific name or classification for a white lion. They are not a separate subspecies of 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.
The reason why white lions are so incredibly rare is because the mating female and the male must both possess the recessive gene in order to produce a white lion cub. The likelihood of both lions having this gene is extremely uncommon, which is why these pale-coloured lions are so special.
Although the unexpected birth of three white lion cubs last year temporarily ended the lengthy local extinction of these rare snow-coloured cats, when the cubs were killed in the dominance takeover, everyone assumed it would be another few decades before we’d ever see this genetic mutation again.
When news of &Beyond Ngala’s fourth white lion cub broke last November, it came as a complete surprise to all of us. As the Ross males took over the Birmingham pride, they immediately began mating with the females and the Birmingham female once again fell pregnant. This time she gave birth to a four-cub-litter, and to everyone’s great astonishment, one of the cubs is in fact white. Now approximately nine months old, this feisty little male white lion cub was recently joined by yet another gorgeous white lion cub, this one a female, born approximately three months ago to one of the other lionesses in the Birmingham pride.
Of course being a conservation company that is committed to the ongoing protection and preservation of wildlife, our expert guides adhere to the strictest and most sensitive and responsible viewing practices in order to give these highly sought-after young felines the best possible chance of survival.
A flash of white
Now, back to our pre-dawn mission. It’s winter in South Africa right now, so while this does mean a few (for me, seven) extra layers of warm clothing (plus blankets and hot water bottles), it also means that the sun rises later, the sky is typically clear, the air is crisp and the vegetation is much more sparse, enabling you to view wildlife with a bit more ease than in the dense, lush summer months.
As we trundled along the dirt road in complete darkness, our cameraman Thomas van der Spuy (of Safari Film Crew) casually claimed that we’d just driven right past the white lion cub. Hesitant to actually believe him, we eventually agreed to turn around and prove whether or not his glimpse was in fact the holy white grail we’d been looking for.
Lo and behold, Thomas’ eyes certainly weren’t playing tricks on him in the low light, and there on the side of the road, densely snuggled right in the middle of a cosy cuddle huddle of lionesses and cubs, was in fact the nine-month-old white lion cub. The sun hadn’t even risen yet, so we had the extraordinary opportunity to view the pride in complete silence without any other vehicles or voices present. I wasn’t able to witness last year’s trio of white lion cubs, so this was a safari first for me and one that I will never forget.
Patience finally pays off
In fact, seeing this rare new cub and its younger sibling was a safari first for even the most seasoned of safari goers. Take Dyke Khosa for instance. If you have visited &Beyond Ngala, you will know that Dyke is an iconic and long-standing member of the Ngala family. “Ngala is my home. I have been working in this private reserve for nearly 28 years,” he says, beaming with pride.
With nearly three decades of quality guiding under his belt, Dyke had never seen a white lion in the wild until last year when the first of Ngala’s five white lion cubs was revealed. And now, to be able to witness two of the world’s three wild white lions, playing together, is yet another safari first. “I waited 28 years to witness this,” Dyke explains, “But I always knew I was in the right place.”
There was a palpable aura of sadness when the new cubs were killed last year. “When the three white lion cubs were taken out by the Ross males, none of us thought we’d ever see another white lion cub again,” Dyke recalls. “All of the guides, trackers and people in the area are hoping that these two new white lion cubs make it through to adulthood and one day have cubs of their own.”