The white lion is a rare color mutation of the lion, specifically the Southern African lion. White lions in the area of Timbavati were thought to have been indigenous to the Timbavati region of South Africa for centuries, although the earliest recorded sighting in this region was in 1938.Regarded as divine by locals,white lions first came to public attention in the 1970s, in Chris McBride's book The White Lions of Timbavati.
White lions are not albinos. Their white color is caused by a recessive trait derived from a less-severe mutation in the same gene that causes albinism, distinct from the gene responsible for white tigers.
They vary from blonde to near-white. This coloration does not appear to pose a disadvantage to their survival. The white lions of the Global White Lion Protection Trust (GWLPT) have been reintroduced into their natural habitat
and have been hunting and breeding successfully without human intervention for a significant amount of time.
A recessive gene gives white lions their unusual colors. A similar gene also produces white tigers. White lions can therefore be selectively bred for zoos, animal shows and wildlife parks. Such breeding involves inbreeding and can result in inbreeding depression (genetic defects, reduced fertility, and physical defects), although this has not yet been found to cause hind-limb paralysis or serious heart defects, which would indicate a severe level of inbreeding. Some are concerned about white lions mating with lions of other alleles, due to possible extinction of the white lion allele. However, this is not valid as the offspring will inherit the recessive white gene and therefore make it possible to produce white offspring in a later generation, thus making the allele more widespread. Some critics maintain that white lions should not be introduced into the wild because of the inbreeding that has taken place in zoos and breeding camps.However, ethical reintroduction programs such as The Global White Lion
Protection Trust have ensured through the use of scientific methodologies that the lions in their program are not inbred.
Genetically, the white lion is the same subspecies as the tawny Southern African lion (Panthera leo melanochaita), which is found in some wildlife reserves in South Africa, and in zoological parks around the world. White lions are not albinos, but leucistic. They have pigment visible in the eyes (which may be the normal hazel or golden color, blue-gray, or green-gray), paw pads and lips. Blue-eyed white lions exist and may be selectively bred. The leucistic trait is due to a recessive mutation in the gene for Tyrosinase (TYR), an enzyme responsible for the production of melanins. More severe mutations in the same gene have been found to cause albinism in many species, while another less severe mutation in the same gene is responsible for the Chinchilla coloring trait seen in several mammals. Reduced pigment production decreases the deposition of pigment along the hair shaft, restricting it to the tips. The less pigment there is along the hair shaft, the paler the lion. As a result, "white" lions range
from blonde to near-white. The males have pale manes and tail tips instead of the usual dark tawny or black.
From the 1970s onwards, prized for their rarity, the white lions and many 'normal' coloured (tawny) lions carrying the white lion gene were removed from the wild and put into captive breeding and hunting programs and sent to zoos and circuses around the globe. No adult white lion had been seen in their natural habitat since 1994. The Global White Lion Protection Trust (WLT) therefore initiated a world-first re-establishment of white lions within their natural habitat in 2004, based on successful reintroduction techniques. The wild born offspring of rehabilitated white lions were integrated with resident wild tawny lions, and released through a soft release process. Three prides of white lions of high genetic integrity integrated with tawny lions have been successfully established, and are hunting self-sufficiently in their natural habitat, at a predation rate comparable to the wild tawny lions in the same habitat. The genetic marker determining the white colouration was identified in a
collaborative study with 5 other countries in October 2013, and is being used to ensure genetic integrity and ultimately to determine the frequency of occurrence of the gene in the wild population.
The primary aim of the Global White Lion Protection Trust (WLT) is to harness the cultural importance of white lions to local indigenous communities, to help protect the Kruger to Canyon (K2C) Biosphere and the greater lion population in this region. This approach is based on the international precedent of the Kermode Bear (Ursus americanus kermodei) in British Columbia (Western Canada), whereby this rare, white variant of the American black bear (Ursus americanus) has been declared a critically endangered subspecies due to its conservation and cultural value, such that the Kermode Bear is being used as a flagship species for protecting a 4000 000 ha wilderness area. As with the Kermode Bear, by protecting the white lions, their entire population within their endemic area would be protected.
Subsequently, white cubs were born in the Timbavati Private Nature Reserve in 2006, 2008, 2009, 2011, 2012 and 2013, and in the Nwanetsi Area of Kruger National Park in 2014 and 2015, confirming that white lions are a natural occurrence and the recessive gene is still present in the wild population.
In light of the recent decision by South Africa's Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) at CITES 2016, to continue to allow the hunting of captive bred lions ("canned hunting"), and the trade in lion bones from captive bred lions, the Global White Lion Protection Trust (WLT) asserts that the survival of lions in the Greater Kruger Park Region is likely to come under threat, and the white lion is the ideal capstone animal to help better protect all lions in the Greater Kruger Park Region.
As the proposed policy stands for the management of lions in South Africa, the WLT asserts that the legalization of the lion bone trade will increase the supply and therefore demand of wild lion trophies and especially lion bones, increasing poaching and illegal hunting and threatening the future of wild lion populations in South Africa.
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