When I arrived on the Singita Lebombo concession at the beginning of this year, I was hoping to catch a glimpse of the famous white male lion of the Shishangaan Pride. It is almost the end of the year, and I can say that I have been very privileged to have seen him many times since then.
He and his band of three brothers are now over five years old (originally there were five brothers, one is missing and presumed dead). They have been living a nomadic life for close on two years but, incredibly, are still in the area of their birth. Typical lion behaviour dictates that young male lions become nomadic at around three-and-a-half years of age. They would then go in the search of a pride of their own. In these wilderness areas, male lions can sometimes settle up to a 100 km away from their natal pride group. This seems to be nature’s way of ensuring a strong gene pool among the lion population. It is a difficult time for these males as they need to hunt and provide for each other, and they also have to avoid the larger more powerful territorial males that will no doubt try to eliminate them before they reach maturity.
The presence of them in this area at this late stage of their lives can be regarded as unusual behaviour, however it is very exciting for us and we are hoping that they will become territorial at some stage in the near future.
It is thought that this white male lion is one of only three known to exist in the wild. The other two white lions were born in the same region of the Kruger National Park along the Timbavati River in 2019. This region is the only area where white lions have occurred in the wild – they were first reported here in the 1930s and again in the 1970s. The gene that produces the white fur is limited to this small region of Africa and is engineered by a leucistic gene. It creates a loss of pigment but they still retain colour in other features.
The mythology surrounding white lions has fascinated me. In African folklore, white lions existed long before the first known sighting of them in the 1930s. They are also considered to be the one of the most sacred of all the animals. There are myths and legends about them coming down to our planet from the stars, even the name of the Timbavati River, which is said to be derived from the Shangaan language, means “the place where star lions came down from the heavens.” The central Kruger area where these lions occur, falls on the Nile meridian (31 degrees East), a ley line which in Egyptian mythology, is believed to be the place at which life first emerged on our planet. This area also happens to be exactly aligned with the great Sphinx of ancient Egypt and, incredibly, could have been symbolising a white lion.
Whether you believe in these legends or not, when you do manage to spend time with this white lion and you look deep into his blue eyes, one cannot dispute that he is both majestic and, I would say, supernatural.
Photos by Temujin Johnson while filming for Nat Geo