The White Lions are South Africa's pride and joy, our living national treasure. Or so they should be.
All over the African continent, from Egypt in the North to Bushmanland in the South, legends of the White Lions existence grace ancient oral traditions and cave paintings. From the distant Nile culture in the North to Zululand's Valley of a Thousand Hills in the South, storytellers spoke of the arrival of these legendary animals.
In Senegal in the West, and Somalia in the East, legends proclaim the White Lions magical powers. Yet there is one place only on earth where these mythical creatures have come to life - and that is Timbavati, a wildlife region bordering on South Africa's Kruger National Park.
The name Timbavati in the ancient Shangaan language means "the place where something sacred came down to earth - like a bird or angel from the heavens!" So the site of their origin echoes the White Lions' mythical status - a place which saw the birth of a unique breed of snow- white lions with blazing solar manes, and laser eyes!
My great Shangaan teacher, the indigenous healer known as the Lion Queen of Timbavati, Maria Khosa, first introduced me to the mystery of the White Lions.
This amazing woman proved her own lion-hearted courage by rescuing me, on foot and at night, from a resident pride of angry lions in the Timbavati bushveld. Maria's ancient knowledge, and her lion-hearted actions, changed my life. Maria believed that the White Lions are "Lions of God - who came from the stars." Like that other sacred site, Great Zimbabwe, the clue is embedded in the word Timba-vati: Tsimba - means 'lion'. Accordingly, this is the site where angelic winged lions were believed to have come down to earth.
That other great African teacher, pre-eminent Bushman and Zulu shaman, Credo Mutwa, describes the White Lions as 'Children of the Sun God' - a title which I used for my book which pays homage to these legendary animals. Old African knowledge teaches us that the White Lions are 'enlightenment-bearers' - not white as in skin colour, but white as in pure sunlight. The White Lions emanate sunlight which, afterall, is all the rainbow colours of the spectrum. As such, the White Lions are the living icon for our rainbow nation – beyond colour, creed or race.Living legends
What science has established is that these unique animals are not albinos, but genetic rarities which manifested by natural occurrence. The White Lions should be venerated as a rare sub-species, yet they are not even listed for CITES protection.
At the World Summit of Sustainable Utilisation, where I was a guest speaker, I had occasion to sit next to a distinguished envirolawyer from Senegal, who informed me in reverential tones that the White Lions were spoken about by elders in his West African community, as ancestral beings of the highest order. He told me that they are believed to be angelic creatures - Mondoro - who only take on physical form on earth, at a time of ecological crisis. This squares with the beliefs held by the South Africa's indigenous priesthood.
Whether or not one upholds ancient African legend, the fact is that the White Lions have taken on physical form - and the world is in unprecedented ecological crisis. The conclusions of many at the World Summit in 2002, was that if we continue to degrade our planet at the present rate of consumption, there will not be another World Summit in 2012. The opinion expressed to me by geologist, Dr John Anderson, is that we humans are in the process of bringing about the Sixth Extinction on earth which, unlike previous extinctions such as that of the dinosaurs, will see biodiversity loss from which there will be no recovery for our species.
Hand-in-hand with the degradation of the earth's last resources, goes the extermination of the earth's indigenous people and their invaluable earth knowledge and cultural beliefs - beliefs that venerated the White Lions as guardian spirits over the land and its protection.
The first White Lion sighting that I am aware of, by a European witness, was in 1938 by Joyce Little, whose family owned large tracks of land in Timbavati, and were friends of President Kruger. As a child of 11, she was with other family members who were driving in the veld one night when, to their amazement, they spotted what looked like a ghostly vision - a snow-white lioness accompanying a tawny pride. Even now at the age of 77, Joyce remembers that night like yesterday. For a moment her family were struck dumb with astonishment. Then, after the white lioness disappeared into the darkness, her father announced that this specimen was a 'sport' - using the genetic term for a freak of nature. By contrast with his analytical approach, she recalls the reverence with which the indigenous staff members received the news of the rare sighting. They spoke about the White Lions' magical powers in whispers of awe and respect. Joyce's father, by comparison, was a big game hunter who went on to pride himself with single-handedly bringing down no less than sixteen lions. Apart from that brief, almost mystical, sighting of the apparition in the tawny pride, no further White Lions made an appearance to Joyce's family.
The first photographic records of the White Lions date back to the 1970s when researcher, Chris McBride, recorded the existence of White Lions in more than one pride in the Timbavati region. Further sightings were then recorded in the neighbouring Kruger Park area, within territorial range of Timbavati.
It is hard to describe the majesty and beauty of these amazing creatures in real life. Photographs hardly do them justice. Chris McBride, whose photo-journalistic studies in the 1970s put the White Lions on the map, had little idea what impact his photographs would have on the world. Not all revered the White Lions, however. Some saw the opportunity to cash in. In 1975, fearing for the safety of this unique species, which were being lured under the fences of the Timbavati reserve and bred for hunting purposes, or possibly even shot within the reserve itself, Chris McBride organised to have three lions captured, in an operation known as 'Operation White Lion'. These three lions were sent to the Pretoria Zoo. Today, no White Lions exist in the wild.
It is a bleak reflection of humanity's mismanagement of our earth's precious resources that the White Lions have not roamed their natural homelands of Timbavati since 1994 - almost a decade ago. They were artificially removed, and all are now held in captivity in zoo's or in breeding/hunting camps by individuals operating for personal gain. Unscrupulous hunting practices known as canned lion hunts (in which lions are hand-reared, drugged and shot in enclosures) continue to flourish in South Africa. While the scientific word 'sport' means 'genetic rarity', this term has now taken on a macabre new meaning in respect of the White Lions, since these living legends form the centre of the canned lion hunting industry, and are shot for pleasure. Blood-sport for blood-money. After mounting public outcry, the Government is finally considering a policy which prohibits canned lion hunting.
Those who have been in Timbavati long enough to recall rare sightings of White Lions in the wild, still light up at the memory. Jack Matabula, the now elderly Shangaan tracker who assisted Chris McBride in locating the White Lions, describes them as 'a gift from god'. Shaking his head, Steve Berg, manager of Motswari camp in Timbavati, recalls his own experience in the early 90s, when he saw a magestic white lioness together with her tawny pride, pad straight past the camp, to the delight of his astonished guests. 'It was like striking pure gold!" he says.
Given the magic that surrounds the White Lions, it is not really surprising that their appearances are associated with gold. This is the case even in captive situations. As befits a national treasure, the sites where the White Lions have been born invariably relate to gold. Since the White Lion removals from Timbavati in the 1970s, they have been bred in the Anglogold enclosure in the Johannesburg Zoo (City of Gold) in the so-called province of gold (Gauteng means 'gold' in Xhosa). They have also been bred near Bethlehem in the Free States so-called 'Golden Gate' area. Similarly, the World Heritage site of Sterkfontein, located beside the gold mining site of Krugersdorp, has witnessed the births of captive-bred White Lions - all from original Timbavati stock.
Each appearance seems to deepen the mystique surrounding the White Lions. World Heritage sites and gold mining sites. Everything touched by the White Lions seems to turn to gold.
The fact that they are associated with gold sites reminds us that in world mythology lions are always connected with gold. As the king of the beasts, the lion in Heraldry is often depicted wearing a gold crown. In Alchemy, gold is known as the 'Lion of Metals', while in Iconography, the Lion is believed to be the 'Guardian of Gold.' That is why the symbol of a golden lion is so regularly used by today's banking institutions.
Yet gold, symbolically, has two meanings: enlightenment, or sheer greed.
One of the unfortunate aspects of the work I am doing in raising awareness, is that as people become enlightened about the White Lions' cultural significance and their true value, so on the other hand their trading price sky-rockets. In January 2001, before my book on the White Lions was published, they were trading at R250 000. A year and a half later, a White Lion was offered as a trophy for R1.65 million.
Speed breeding and inbreeding in captivity results in a weakening of the gene, with consequent deformations and the susceptibility to diseases. Captive breeding operators claim, wrongly, that the White Lions could never survive in natural habitat. What are these rare animals, if not Nature's miracle? Those White Lions that were studied in the wild in Timbavati were the most perfect specimens, showing natural dominance within their pride, and expert hunting techniques - despite the challenges of a white coat in a tawny environment. Amongst significant sightings of the White Lions in the wild, is that of famed wild-life artist, Zakie Eloff, who described to me how he had come across a white lioness in the Celon region of Timbavati, alone on an impala kill – which confirmed that she was an effective hunter, even without the collaboration of the pride. As icons of nature's perfection, the White Lions do not require any form of genetic engineering to justify their existence on earth. Signs of their phenotype still exists within the tawny lions of the region, so White Lions can make an appearance at any moment - by natural occurrance.
Indigenous peoples around the world, who understand nature more intimately than most of us could ever appreciate, maintain that everything in nature happens for a reason. The White Lions were born in Timbavati at a specific time, at a specific place, for a specific reason - which science is yet to discover. They did not appear in Timbavati by chance. My book on the subject goes some way to explaining the reasons for the White Lions' occurrence in this particular area of the globe. However, scientific funds would be well-directed to understanding why the White Lions are endemic to this specific region, regarded as a sacred site by the African kings for many centuries. Timbavati is not only their natural homeland, it is also the White Lions' spiritual homeland.
In 2002, I established the Global White Lion Protection Trust, which is committed to protecting the White Lions which are at great risk in captive breeding/hunting camps, as well as the indigenous knowledge that holds them sacred. The Global White Lion Protection Trust is also committed to a carefully orchestrated scientific research program, which aims to reintroduce the white Lions to their original homelands of Timbavati. Returning them to their place of origin is a significant act of redressing the wrong which humans have perpetrated against them. If we cannot protect of King of the king of beasts, what hope is there for all the other kingdoms on earth?
I believe we should pay our respects to old African culture, which reveals that the White Lion's gold is of much greater worth to South Africans than mere monetary value. In the words of Selby Gumbi, Zulu indigenous priest, healer and African cosmologist, 'The White Lions are the first-born of creation; they form an enlightened priesthood through which we can communicate directly with God. They are part of the hierarchy of pure light and love.'
Swazi elder of royal lineage and highly respected traditional healer, Baba Mataba, has been writing praise songs to the White Lions in the Great African Tradition. Mataba puts the issue in its true light when he says: "By holding the white lion captive the spirit of Africa is held captive. If we can free the White Lion, the spirit of Africa will be free."
As icons of South Africa's rainbow nation, the White Lions are radiant symbols of African pride and the richness of our cultural heritage. They should be venerated and protected as such. Only once this continent's White Lions are released from captivity and bondage, will the great spirit of Africa be truly liberated once more.
Mystery of the White Lions: Children of the Sun God by Linda Tucker is published by Npenvu Press, reprinted 2003.
For further information, contact: Global White Lion Protection Trust [IT 8575/02]
PO Box 858, Hoedspruit 1380 S.Africa
tel: +27 (0) 15 793-0657
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