The lions are once again kings of Timbavati in Limpopo. But their numbers in the wild remain small. CITES CoP17 is opening on 24 September, where policymakers will decide if it is okay to hunt these magnificent beasts. It will take the strength of an entire community, led by the Global White Lion Protection Trust, to ensure the species’ survival.
Zukhara is a handsome white lion living at the Global White Lion Protection Trust’s reserve in Timbavati, Limpopo, his ancestral homeland. His thick mane waves with every shake of the head, and his gaze is magnetic. Just don’t try to stare him down, warns Linda Tucker, the founder of the trust. Staring into a lion’s eyes means you are offering a challenge.
Zukhara – whose name is derived from the Egyptian sun god Ra – is one of six white lions on the reserve and 12 overall remaining in the wild. There are hundreds of white lions in captivity, unknowingly waiting to be hunted.
With the CITES CoP17 World Wildlife Conference taking place in Johannesburg between 24 September and 5 October, some of South Africa’s most loved animals, including white lions, may see their fates take a downturn.
South African policymakers attending the conference, properly known as the 17th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, are proposing a change in the status of lions from endangered to a species not under threat. White lions are threatened the most as they are not separately classified and are instead seen as a variant of the tawny lion.
This is the reason Tucker and the trust’s lion ecologist, Jason Turner, is looking to keep the status of all lions as endangered and prevent them from being hunted and traded.
“The logic was to regulate the captive breeding industry,” says Tucker. “If you down-list you can basically legitimise captive breeding. And that’s when we realised there was such a huge risk, that policy can make it acceptable to industrialise our lions. Once that happens from a legislation point of view, it’s really the end of everything, the end of ecosystems.”
With just 12 white lions remaining in the wild they would be deemed critically endangered if they were classified as a subspecies. But CITES groups them among the tawny African lion population.
CITES appendices explained
Africa lions, Panthera leo, are listed as vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. Animals classified as vulnerable means they are considered to be facing a high risk of extinction in the wild and are likely to become endangered unless the circumstances threatening their survival and reproduction improve.
Lions are split listed on the CITES appendices, at Appendix I and II, which means some populations of a species are on one appendix, while some are on another.
Appendix I means the species is threatened with extinction and may be affected by trade; trade in wild-caught species is illegal.
Appendix II means the species is not necessarily threatened with extinction, but may become so unless trade in them is restricted. An export permit is required for trade in these species.
Turner stops the van near a hut on stilts that overlooks a watering hole. It is a remnant of an old hunting practice, he says. “The previous owner would have his friends over, get drunk on brandewyn and wait for the animals to arrive. They’d shoot them without care.”
So when the trust bought the land from the farmer, the animals expected the same. “The animals would just see a vehicle and run. You’d barely see their tails.”
The canned hunting industry started near Timbavati, says Tucker. Today numerous animals, including hundreds of white lions, are held captive exclusively for hunting.
Canned hunting has grown particularly quickly in Free State, where 160 such farms have sprung up in the last 20 years. The farms can be about 20 hectares in size, meaning there is not much room for any wild animal to thrive.
Speaking at the 2016 IUCN Congress in Hawaii, running from 1-10 September, Wildlands Conservation Trust chief executive Andrew Venter said the rate of lions hunted in captivity had dropped by 70% in the past year. However, more than 6 000 lions are still being bred in more than 200 breeding stations as hunting trophies. He called for an end to canned hunting.
At the end of the congress, the IUCN called for laws banning the breeding of lions for canned hunting, particularly in South Africa, by 2020. It stated that hunters regard the practice as “an ethically repugnant embarrassment”.
Cecil and Blood Lions
When the trust heard South Africa was proposing to change the status of lions from endangered to species not under threat, it started alerting the public of the risks lions would face.
But at about the same time, Cecil the lion was killed in Zimbabwe and the documentary Blood Lions was released, which exposed the canned hunting industry. The film led to a Blood Lions campaign against captive breeding and canned hunting, which is said to have heavily dented the multimillion-rand industry this year.
According to Tucker, these two events started shifting international perceptions.
“International policy started changing for the first time in my experience over 20 years,” she says. “International policy started clamping down on trophies across borders. So there was the CECIL Bill that came out and the Fish and Wildlife Service in the States and Australia closed its ports to trophy hunting. So there was a sort of international position around this.”
US senator Bob Menendez introduced the Conserving Ecosystems by Ceasing the Importation of Large (CECIL) Animal Trophies Act, which prohibited trade of endangered animals or those proposed to be endangered without permission from the Secretary of the Interior.
To prevent white lions from becoming trophies, Tucker is trying to get them classified as a subspecies, which, considering their low population numbers, would render them critically endangered. But the white lion is not the only animal she looks to protect. “Our idea is to get the whole ecosystem protected with white lions as the charismatic animal at the centre.”
At the trust’s reserve, zebra, black-backed jackal, eland, wildebeest, impala and even the rare purple-crested loerie, roam freely and thrive again. “So with nature restoring itself, the parks in the area are growing and the different species are all moving through as they should be,” says Turner.
Developers from Dubai wanted to buy some land in Timbavati, part of which would have been the trust’s reserve. They aimed to build a golf estate. But all the farmers banded together to prevent it from happening, says Turner. “The biggest challenge is human politics and the biggest stakeholders are the communities and they’re starting to believe.”
“We want a radical shift in consciousness,” says Tucker. “I’m so battle weary of being in the system and not being able to change the system, which is a consumerist-based system arguing on trade considerations and trade hunting considerations. They’re good arguments but they’re all based on exploitation of our ecosystem instead of love and reverence, which is the indigenous way. You see these statistics in the congresses we attend that are so dire you can barely take them in.”
Scientists proven wrong
When Tucker and Turner wanted to introduce Marah and her cubs to the wild, scientists warned them that they may not survive. First they believed that as captive animals they would find it difficult to hunt for their own food and secondly, their white coats would not camouflage well in the bushveld.
But the lions proved the experts wrong. Their hunting instincts quickly took over and their white bodies hid well in the foliage, especially during winter. “The white lions have a great winter camouflage,” says Tucker. “All these white tigers and lions popping up around the world means nature is giving signs of an impending Ice Age.”
At the time, Marah was leaving scat in various parts of the reserve. Tucker believes this was a sign that the lioness was doing well. “In her scat, she was showing us that she was okay. One scat had porcupine and the other had duiker hooves. This sort of tracking is an indigenous technique. She was telling us she was okay.”
As a scientist, Turner said he was amazed to find the lioness and her cubs were adapting so quickly. Over the years, Turner has come to accept Tucker’s animal communication techniques. “As a scientist I can only record the outcome and over time a pattern emerges and I can only say that science could not explain some things.”
White lions a Shangaan heritage
Tucker not only wants to protect the white lion for its own sake. They are significant to the Shangaan people of Timbavati who believe the white lions to be their kings and queens reborn. Protecting these cats would also mean preserving an important part of Shangaan, and indeed, South African heritage.
On a warm November afternoon in 1991, Tucker experienced first-hand just how closely connected the Shangaan are to the lions of Timbavati.
When she and a few friends rode out into the bush to witness a lioness giving birth to cubs, they didn’t expect to become prey for a pride of lions. “There were 24 lions around us. There was no radio call at the time,” says Tucker. Having no radio meant they couldn’t call for help.
The sun was setting quickly. People first laughed and later they panicked. The lions could smell the fear from their cold sweat. “We were like prey in an open butcher shop. They were in predatory poses, ready to pounce.”
Then in the faint light, a woman in sangoma dress carrying a baby on her back and with a little boy beside her appeared. “She walked pass the lions towards us, so surefooted. And the lions became calm and backed off. She climbed on to the vehicle and just held this courage in her hands. She saved us.”
The lady was Maria Khosa, a Shangaan sangoma who later became Tucker’s mentor on her own spiritual journey.
Today, the Shangaan in Timbavati still honour the lions by performing rituals to appease them. Tucker has taken to these rituals and has been practising an indigenous approach to nature for the last decade. However, this ancient knowledge has been dying out over the last 20 years. “It’s an aural tradition. [Shangaan people] pass it down, word-for-word, believing if you get one word wrong, they’ll be cursed.”
One of these practices is the slow cat blink, which she recommends above the staring contest. “Bow your head slightly and close your eyes. Indigenous people have always practised this respectful approach to nature.”
Other than the slow cat blink, Tucker has also used animal communication and indigenous knowledge systems to learn more about the lions.
For the trust to protect the white lions, it combines indigenous knowledge with scientific rigour. “We combine ancient indigenous knowledge with modern ecological knowledge. The ancient system believes nature is one living organism that works together,” she says.
There were no white lions in Timbavati before she started the trust in 2002. After rescuing Marah, a lioness cub, from a hunting camp in 2000, she vowed to return the white lion to the land and its people. Two years later, Marah and her three cubs were the first white lions to be introduced to their ancestral homeland of Timbavati, much to the Shangaan community’s delight.
Getting the community to help
The trust is turning to the Shangaan community, and particularly its children, to help protect the white lion. The StarLion Programme educates the community in Timbavati about protecting the white lions found in the area.
The programme’s One United Roar campaign gets youth and adults to be the voice for the lions, especially when speaking to policymakers attending CITES CoP17. As part of the campaign, youth members are posting messages on the trust’s YouTube channel, calling for the protection of lions.
Tucker says the campaign recognises that all the policies governing wildlife do not represent the animals’ perspective. “We thought ‘how do we get lions as the silent stakeholders in human policies, to have a voice and a vote?’ We thought the only way to do that was for people to go into the position of the lion. And the best way to do that was through kids because they were much less indoctrinated than we were and they could feel from a lion’s perspective what it was like.”
Earning nature’s trust again
Zukhara and his brother, Matsieng, walk towards a hunt they could smell a kilometre away. They separate into what Turner calls a pincer formation.
They mark scents on trees as they move along. And when they reach a grove, they meet again and drop to the ground. “Their strategy is to lie in wait separately, picking up scents. The females might have hunted or attempted a hunt,” says Turner, while sticking half his body out of the driver’s side window.
The trust he has for the lions is two-way. Not once have the lions attacked him, despite his being exposed to them on numerous occasions. When they first moved here, the animals were terrified of humans, explains Turner. But with him and Tucker showing the animals love and respect, nature – at least in Timbavati – has learnt to trust humans again.
Quick facts about lions
- In the 1800s there were 1.2 million lions in the wild. Now there are between 21 000 and 35 000.
- Lions have lost 50% of their land/range in last 30 years.
- Up to 1800, lions could be found throughout Africa, stretching across the Middle East and into India.
- A white male lion rescued by the trust was going to be hunted for R1.6-million.
- A roar can go as far as two kilometres.
- Roars communicate that this is the lion’s territory. One male lion had 65 back roars. Rivals in Timbavati only manage half of that.