Lions are rather majestic creatures that roam the wilds of Africa, Asia, and zoos. White lions are an even more captivating group of this already famous species. Wildlife guides in South Africa came across a family of white lions in the wild, which is a rare occurrence.
Earlier this month, wildlife guides came across a family of lions that included a white cub. This occurred at the Ngala Private Game Reserve in South Africa.
Lyle Bruce McCabe, a field guide at the game reserve, had noticed the cubs after seeing a male near the Timbavati river. This is the first time that McCabe and many of his colleagues have come across a white cub after 26 years. It was a true surprise.
Both the male and female lions were normal colored, so the cub most likely inherited the white coloring as a recessive mutation. The cub is not completely white as its eyes are colored. This means that the cub has leucism instead of albinism.
It is rare to see such a white lion in the wild because the traits are rare and require some level of inbreeding. Also, being a white lion gets you noticed by everyone fairly quickly.
The coloring of a lion’s fur is something that evolved over time to help them hunt better by disguising them in similarly colored environments. Along with the statistic that only about 50% of normally colored lion cubs survive their first year, being a white lion creates additional stress on the survival of the cub.
There is evidence of adult lions that are white, so survival is not impossible. Many of these go on to join prides and live out a relatively successful life as a lion.
In captivity, a white lion faces a lot more problems than in the wild because of their rare coloring and limited gene pools.
The lion cub had a case of leucism, which is a very rare disorder that we inherit from our parents. This condition is not limited to just animals as humans can get it as well. It can be easily mistaken for albinism because they both lead to white pigmentation. However, leucism does not remove the pigments of the eyes.
The recessive genes that the lion cub inherited from its parents caused defects in its pigmentation cells. As the cells were developing into proper pigmentation cells, defects appeared and disrupted the development of these cells to the point where they became unable to produce melanin.
The coloring of these white lions have led to rumors that the may be a separate species from other lions, but it is important to remember that this condition is a defect in the lions.
Seeing leucism in captivity is a problem because it means that zoos are engaging in inbreeding programs for these lions. The white coloring is striking and different from anything else someone might see, so it draws more people in. That means more revenue and interest in a particular zoo.
In a recent study about inbreeding at a zoo in Italy, researchers found that inbreeding was extensive and lead to many problems. There were 19 white lion cubs that were bred through inbreeding. Among these cubs, 4 were stillborn, 13 died within six months, and 1 had to be euthanized because it could not eat.
There were noticeable instances of cranial abnormalities and other problems. The only cub that managed to survive for a relatively long time, survived with a few neurological and physical problems.
The constant drive towards inbreeding with a very small population results in many recessive traits being expressed. These traits are rarely good and many of them lead to numerous physical and neurological problems, like those experienced by these lion cubs.
Recognizing that these problems are occurring, the Association for Zoos and Aquariums placed a ban on having any of its associated members engage in inbreeding programs for traits like white coloring.
Surviving As A Lion
Lions are considered a vulnerable species by the IUCN Red List because they are faced with many problems that continue to diminish their population growth.
Their population has reduced by about 43% in the last 25 years and they continue to diminish. The main threats that lions face are habitat loss, prey depletion, and indiscriminate killing (where they are killed to protect livestock and human lives).
As humans expand into areas that are inhabited by wild animals, we compete with them and usually win over them. This causes a displacement of many of these creatures, which happen to be the prey that lions feed on.
Relevant to white lions are the instances of illegal trade of lion body parts, such as their bones and fur. Beliefs that the body parts of lions can be used for superstitious or medicinal purposes has allowed an industry to grow around hunting lions for these body parts.
Alongside desire for the lion body parts in Africa, there is a noticeable increase in demand from Asian countries, like China. China currently permits the use of bones from captive lions for medicinal uses.
A white lion is subjected to many of these problems because of their white coloring. They are viewed as special amongst lions and their rarity draws in strong demand for them.
As we continue to study and understand how to best preserve lion populations, we must also delve into the genetics of them because leucism or albinism are signs of some level of inbreeding. As we have seen with the captive populations, these inbreeding can lead to many problems that diminish a population.
Captive breeding programs are used to rehabilitate the population of many endangered species and there is always a worry that genetic defects can emerge. That is one of the reasons why the AZA has prohibited the inbreeding of lions for certain traits because they are not helpful towards the goal of conservation.