Monday, January 28, 2008

White lion conservation

The Global White Lion Protection Trust states that a primary aim of theirs "is to establish a sub-population of white lions integrated with wild tawny lions within their greater endemic range..."

A noble conservation project you think? On the website there is a lot being said about years gone by and the removal of white lions or "tawny lions carrying the white gene" from the Timbavati area of South Africa. It is therefore worthwhile reintroducing these animals to the Timbavati area you might think.

But hang on! In 2006 white lion cubs were born in two different lion prides within the greater Timbavati area. Clearly the genes leading to the periodic appearance of the white lion is still within the prides in the greater Timbavati area. So why reintroduce them?

Would it not be better to investigate the genetics of these prides and to try and get a handle on the prevalence of the relevant genes causing the white phenotype within the numerous lion prides within the greater Timbavati area?

Moreover, the Global White Lion Protection Trust "is also putting together an application to have white lions listed on the IUCN Red Data List of Endangered and Threatened Species". The problem here is obvious - white lions are not a separate species or even a subspecies as is evident from the fact that tawny lions occasionally produce white cubs.


Jason Turner said...
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Jason Turner said...

Thank you for your comments on white lion conservation. The Global White Lion Protection Trust welcomes all informed views and opinions.

Having studied lions for 6 years in the Timbavati itself for my MSc in Lion Ecology, and having conducted a further 7 years of research on white lion reintroduction (as part of a PhD study), here is clarification on a number of facts about white lions and their conservation.

It is correctly stated that white cubs were born in Timbavati in 2006, confirming the gene still exists there. However, none of the cubs (white or tawny) survived, most probable reason being that the dominant male and father of the cubs was trophy hunted. Irrespective of whether this was the reason or not, the trophy hunting of pride male lions goes against the laws of 'natural selection' and 'survival of the fittest'. Unfortunately this is not an isolated incident, the same year "the wrong lion was mistakenly" hunted, and just so happened to be a pride male as well (Sunday Independent May 2006). A further three pride males are known to have been hunted in a neighbouring reserve which is part of the same open system .... Hence no matter what the frequency of occurrence of the white gene, because white lions are not distinguished from tawny lions (any permit issued to hunt a lion can be used to hunt a white lion), and since white lions fetch a higher price to be hunted (up to R1.5 million for an adult male - Ian Michler, Africa Geographic), any white lions that are born in the Timbavati region will be at risk of being hunted - until they are protected by law and the ethical and ecologcially-responsbile hunting protocol that was developed by the Dept Environment & Tourism (DEAT) and supported by the Kruger National Park (KNP) (as well as numerous interested and affected parties) is enforced in this region.

Regarding the white gene still existing in the Timbavati: It took 12 years for white lions to occur again in the Timbavati (in 2006), suggesting that the frequency of occurrence of the gene is low. The frequency of occurrence of the gene in the Timbavati and southern Kruger National Park (KNP) was increasing until Man once again decided to step in and intervene: the frequency has increased to 12 births of white lions in 9 different prides between 1975 and 1980 in the Timbavati and southern KNP (Robinson & De vos 1982), until they were artificially removed from the Timbavati (McBride 1981), and the gene pool was depleted in the KNP (when 56% of all lions were culled in the region where the white lions were recorded) [Smuts 1982].

The frequency of occurrence of the gene in the white lions' natural endemic habitat will be evaluated as soon as we've determined the genetic marker responsible for the white colouration, and using ecological modelling (which takes into account all possible variables) the natural frequency of occurrence of white lions will be established within their natural endemic region.

Specifically regarding white lions being a subspecies or not, please refer to the international precedent of the Kermode Bear (Ursus americanus kermodei), a white variant and subspecies of the Black Bear (Ursus americanus) [Marshall & Ritland 2002]. Also refer to Antunes et al. (2008) which provides new evidence of subspeciation in the African lion, on which basis the white lion would be classified as genetically distinct and therefore a subspecies and / or an evolutionary significant unit (Barnett et al. 2006).

Please see our website, and particularly the "21Q&A" for more detailed information on white lions and white lion conservation.

Jason Turner