Lions. Lions are without doubt the most sought after sighting for safari-goers throughout Africa. First timers and veterans alike will always be delighted at the sight of Africa’s largest cat. And even more so, the famed, revered and iconic white lions of the Timbavati.
But what is in a white lion? What makes a white lion, more than, their tawny counterparts? Why do some cultures believe that the white lions have devine or angelic powers and characteristics? I can tell you it doesn’t come from their behaviour. As much as we’d like to think white lions are more special, they are simply the same, regular, plain old lions we’ve seen time and time again.
Yet, there is something in their presence that captivates us, that elicits a sense of “specialness” that we attribute to them over others. This is all thanks to a rare genetic mutation.
White lions do not suffer from albinism, or the total lack of pigmentation in their skin, fur and eyes. Rather, they are leucistic, this means that the gene responsible for melanin production (melanin being responsible for pigmentation), functions differently to that of a tawny lion.
This particular gene mutation is a recessive trait inherited by lions which means that almost any lion in the region of southern Africa may carry the gene. However, the chances of the gene being expressed are quite low. Even if two wild, white lions were to mate and successfully produce a litter of cubs, there is only a one in six chance that a cub will be born leucistic or white.
Vast amounts of research has been conducted on these unique cats and so far, their lighter colouration does not advantage or disadvantage them in any way. They are fully capable of fending for themselves in the wild despite their obvious lack of the usual coloured camouflage.
No matter how you feel about lions, there is no denying the humbling sense of privilege that fills your being when their gaze washes over you, or when they stroll within meters of your safari vehicle, be they white or otherwise.
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