Letsatsi, the White lion. (Son of Temba)
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Letsatsi (meaning 'day' or 'sun')
The white lion is occasionally found in wildlife reserves in South Africa and is a rare color mutation of the Kruger subspecies of lion (Panthera leo krugeri). It has been perpetuated by selective breeding in zoos around the world. White lions are not a separate subspecies and they have never been common in the wild. Regarded as divine by locals, white lions first came to public attention in the 1970s in Chris McBride's book The White Lions of Timbavati. The greatest population of white lions is in zoos where they are deliberately bred for color. The population of the white lion is unknown but the most recent count was in 2004 and 30 were alive. White lions are not albino lions. Instead, the white color is caused by a recessive gene known as chinchilla or color inhibitor. They vary from blonde through to near white, however some can also be red. This coloration gives white lions a distinct disadvantage in nature because they are highly visible. This gives them away to their prey and makes them an attractive target for hunters. According to Linda Tucker, in "Mystery of the White Lions - Children of the Sun God" they are bred in camps in South Africa as trophies for canned hunts.
White lions were first recorded in 1928 and in the early 1940s. In 1959, a pride with two white cubs was seen near Tshokwane in Kruger National Park, but later vanished. Albino lions had been recorded in the area according to David Alder ton's book "Wild Cats Of The World". In 1974, a light Grey lion cub was born at Birmingham Zoo, Alabama.
In 1975, two white cubs were seen at Timberland Game Reserve, adjacent to Kruger National Park. Their story is detailed by Chris McBride in his book "The White Lions of Timbavati". The two cubs, Temba (Zulu for "hope") and Tombi ("girl") had a tawny brother called Vela ('surprise'). In 1975, a white female cub called Phuma ("to be out of the ordinary") was sighted in the Timberland pride.
A few months later Temba, Tombi, and Vela (who carried the recessive white mutation) were taken to the National Zoo in Pretoria, South Africa. Temba sired several cubs. Tombi had a white cub in 1981, it was low in health but survived. Vela sired a litter, they grew up to be strong unusually one out of the 4 cubs was white while the rest were almost blond. The white lions in the Ouwehands Dierenpark (Netherlands) and a private South African Zoo appear to be from Temba, or possibly Vela, lines. A few other white or blond cubs were born in Timberland after Temba, Tombi, and Vela were removed. Another white lion bloodline, possibly part of the Timbavati bloodline, comes from a white male captured in the Timberland area in the late 1980s and kept by a private reserve.
Temba has left descendants in captivity. A heterozygous tawny lion at Pretoria Zoo carries the mutation and most likely pass this on to his offspring. Two heterozygous tawny males from the Cincinnati Zoo are now at a private reserve in Africa. A white female and a heterozygous tawny male were sent to the Zoological Animal Reproduction Center in Indiana, USA. A second female was put together with another but didn't get along so they were separated for some time until they were comfortable in their surroundings.
In 2003, the Global White Lion Protection Trust (WLT) initiated the first ever reintroduction of white lions to their natural endemic range - the Greater Timbavati region in South Africa. Preliminary results have shown that the hunting success of the white lion pride was comparable to or higher than the wild prides ('normal' coloured / tawny) of the Timbavati itself (Turner 2005, Turner in prep.). This pride of "all" white lions has shattered the misperception that white lions cannot hunt successfully (within their natural endemic habitat) due to a perceived lack of camouflage. The long-term objective of the WLT is to restore the natural balance by reintroducing an integrated pride/s of white and tawny lions within their endemic range. White lions are a unique contribution to the biodiversity of the region and are revered by the local communities that hold them sacred.
Broederstroom - Each year, lions are raised in captivity in South Africa and then set loose in enclosed areas where hunters, many from the United States, gun them down. The toll in what one filmmaker calls slaughter, not sport: About 1 000 lions each year.
Kevin Richardson hopes a new movie White Lion, which opens in a few US cities on Friday, will give people second-thoughts about participating in such hunts.
"I just can't understand how anyone would want to shoot a lion that is clearly confined to a finite space with absolutely no hope in hell of ever escaping the so-called hunter," said Richardson, a self-taught "Lion Whisperer" and first-time film producer. "Canned lion hunting, in my opinion, is likened to fishing with dynamite in a pond and then calling yourself a fisherman."
White Lion is about a rare white lion, who as a cub is cast out of his pride because of his colour. He is near starvation when he befriends an older lion who teaches him the ways of the wild. John Kani, a Tony Award-winning actor and playwright, is the storyteller. A young man helps the lion, whose name is Letsatsi, because his Shangaan tribal tradition says a white lion is God's messenger and must be protected. Tension builds as Gisani becomes a tracker on a game farm where he and a foreign hunter encounter Letsatsi.
Trophy hunting is big business in South Africa, worth $91.2m a year, according to the Professional Hunters Association of South Africa. Foreign tourists pay up to $40 000 to shoot a lion.
The government promotes hunting as a revenue source and calls it a "sustainable utilisation of natural resources". Provincial governments sell permits allowing hunters to kill rhinos, elephants - even giraffes. Hunters killed 1 050 lions in 2008, the last year for which figures are available, according to the South African Predator Breeders Association.
The hunters' association says 16,394 foreign hunters - more than half from the United States - killed more than 46,000 animals in the year ending September 2007.
Bred in captivity
Almost all lions hunted under permit in South Africa are bred in captivity. But a new report by Animal Rights Africa says animals that wander out of the huge Kruger National Park into neighbouring private reserves have become fair game.
About 3 600 lions were kept in breeding facilities in 2009, to be sold to zoos, safari farms and for hunting on game farms, said Albi Modise, spokesperson for South Africa's Department of Environment.
Animal Rights Africa says trophy hunting is incompatible with South Africa's push into ecotourism, noting that ad campaigns promoting tourism and game viewing showcase the same species that are offered up to be hunted. The government in 2007 introduced legislation that would reduce the financial incentive to breed lions for the hunt but the Predator Breeders Association challenged the laws and earlier this year won an appeal.
Richardson, the movie's producer, first befriended a pair of lion cubs at the Lion Park outside Johannesburg 12 years ago, when the cubs were 6 months and he was 23. He began shortening his hours as a therapist in postoperative rehabilitation to play with his new friends. Soon, park owner Rodney Fuhr offered him a part-time job which became full time.
Today, Richardson cares for 39 lions at his 800-hectare Kingdom of the White Lion in Broederstroom, an hour and a half drive from Johannesburg, where the film was shot to include tawny gold lions as well as those born white because of a recessive gene.
Lions are nocturnal and spend most of the day sleeping, so filming was limited to a couple of hours in the morning and perhaps another couple in the afternoon - if the cats were willing. Letsatsi was portrayed by several different lions over the four years it took to make the movie. A cuddly cub filmed in the summer of 2006 might be sprouting a mohawk-style tuft of hair the following year, the precursor to a mane.
Richardson said he breaks every rule in the book in handling lions. On a recent morning, the lions welcomed Richardson with rumbling purrs. One shut his eyes in ecstasy and rolled onto his back as Richardson scratched his chin. Another licked Richardson's hand, the tongue as rough as sandpaper. Too many licks can cause bleeding.
Two 180kg lions wrestled him to the ground and a lioness jumped on his back, covering Richardson for a tense minute. He emerged from a tangle of furry blond limbs, face red. One lion threw a casual paw on Richardson's shoulder.
"Ugh, no claws you naughty boy!" he admonished, slapping away a paw larger than his face.
He's been attacked by his lions twice. Once during filming, a lion named Thor grabbed Richardson's arm and pinned him against the cage holding the camera crews, who looked on terrified and unable to help.
"I thought: There goes my arm, and it's my own fault. I was provoking him to get a fight sequence that we needed," Richardson said. The lion stared him in the eyes for what seemed five minutes but couldn't have lasted more than a few seconds, before releasing him, he recalled.
"Lions are 99% chill and & lethal," Richardson said.