Originally published May 7, 2012 at 3:11 p.m., updated May 20, 2013 at 2:59 p.m.
White lions are among the rarest and most treasured animals in the world. Rarer still is their survival in the wild. Their white color stands out in Africa’s wild bush country, increasing their risk of being targeted and killed by rival predators and marauding adult male lions. Only three white cubs have reached adulthood in the wilds of South Africa since white lions were first documented there in 1975.
Map of Kruger National Park
PBS NATURE’s "The White Lions" was filmed in Greater Kruger National Park—primarily in the Timbavati Game Reserve located on the western edge of Kruger National Park. Kruger is one of the largest game reserves in Africa, located in north-east South Africa, and spans 7,523 square miles (19,485 square kilometers). The park was first designated as the Sabie Game Reserve in 1898 by president of the then-Transvaal Republic, Paul Kruger—for whom the park was later renamed. Today Kruger is home to hundreds of species, including South Africa’s “Big Five”: buffalo, elephant, leopard, lion, and rhinoceros. Although the term was initially coined by hunters to describe the five most difficult prey to kill in Africa, the term is still used by the tourism industry.
Now, two white cubs, sisters, have beaten the odds, surviving all the challenges of their youth with the help of two remarkable lionesses – their mother, Matimba, and their aunt, Khanya, a mother with two young tawny cubs of her own.
Without an adult male lion to protect their small pride, Matimba and Khanya must rely solely on their own knowledge, strength and courage to protect their family. In "The White Lions," NATURE tracks the cubs and their mothers as they struggle to survive all the dangers they are faced with in South Africa’s Kruger National Park.
Used primarily for communication and camouflage, color is one of nature’s most dependable defenses. White lions lose the ability to blend in to their surroundings, exposing them to other predators as well as jeopardizing their own ability to hunt. Overcoming their heightened visibility may be the greatest challenge young white cubs face.
Often mistaken for albinos, white lions actually do have some pigmentation and dark eyes. They are leucistic animals, produced by the mating of two tawny lions who both carry a recessive gene for white coat color. Their ghostly white color is both a blessing and a curse, earning them a mythical status and a unique vulnerability.
As they hunt to provide for their cubs, Matimba and Khanya must also defend them from roving male lions who would kill the cubs in order to start new families of their own. Avoiding other lions’ territories, they stay on the move and in the shadows to stay safe.
But they always leave signs behind; roving lions can smell their scent and follow them relentlessly, attacking again and again. Eventually, they will take their toll on the family when a tawny cub is injured and dies after a brutal attack in the night. The little pride is shaken by the profound blow, but moves on.
Together, the single mothers teach the cubs to hunt their prey and establish their domain, and to face down hyenas who would steal their kills. The family returns to their home territory when hunting proves difficult and hunger overtakes them.
Back in familiar hunting grounds, they hunt zebra and giraffe, and the cubs learn how to climb trees to steal a kill from a leopard. The pride heads for a water hole frequented by buffalo and are rewarded by a perfect opportunity. The mothers spot a lame buffalo and teach the cubs exactly how to plan a successful attack on the injured animal. It is their first buffalo hunt.
When they reach the age of two years old, the white cubs are almost fully grown. The pride moves to a new home range, rich in game, and settles in. Then, a new male lion comes calling. He is not one of the dangerous nomads, and, in any case, the cubs are too old now to be in danger. The new male is there to join the pride as their new leader, mate and protector.
A new chapter begins for the pride. And the young white lionesses who have survived the perils of the wild now begin to depend on their own abilities, their own teamwork and their own wisdom to claim their place in the ongoing story of wild white lions in Kruger National Park.
This program originally aired in 2012.