White Lion sanctuary at Sandown – is this rare species facing a caged future?

White Lion sanctuary at Sandown – is this rare species facing a caged future?

Mags MacKean blog ©

It was a biting wind, fresh from the arctic. This part of the Isle of Wight is usually sheltered from the prevailing south-westerlies. Not that day. The icy blasts tore straight over the beach into the car park at Isle of Wight Zoo – nothing to buffer them. Nestled inside a Victorian fort, this is the unlikely setting of a sanctuary for rescued animals.

As I struggled to open the entrance door against the wind, the snow flurries felt at odds with my mission – to pay my respects to the zoo’s exotic inhabitants. Even those born in captivity on UK shores, habituated to our fickle weather, would have a distinctly different genetic memory of their origins. Jungle, savannah, swamp and bushveld belong to temperate climes – a world away from this one.

For all the welcome snowdrops emerging for Spring – the day of my visit felt like the clocks had turned back by many weeks. Wind chill requires thick layers. I was under-dressed, and stepping out into the zoo with my ticket, I marvelled at the furry and whiskered forms striding about their enclosures – rather than retreating to heated shelters.

One resident was the draw for this outing – inspiring my father and me to plan for a ferry from Portsmouth to Fishbourne and drive on to the zoo at Sandbank. A White Lion, he is known as Casper. Whatever my expectations as a lover of lions, nothing prepared me for his magnificence.

I headed in the direction of his enclosure. Rounding a corner, I caught eyes with a tiger slinking along a fence. Its markings were exquisite – ripples of silver, faun, yellow and brown. I stopped in awe – its feral power palpable despite the physical boundary between us.

I didn’t have long before meeting up with my Dad for a scheduled tour of Madagascan Lemurs. Turning my attention to the tiger’s neighbouring enclosure, rocky, shrub-covered mounds created a wilder setting. For all the context of captivity – the relative smallness and double fencing – this environment would not have looked out of place on the African continent. Despite the salty breeze, it made me recall South Africa’s lower bushveld – the White Lion’s native territory. 

I had volunteered there two years ago at the Global White Lion Protection Trust. And my passion for the lions in their care and conservation cause led me to Casper. Born and raised near Southampton, I only recently heard of this zoo specializing in big cats. It was a striking coincidence that a white lion lived so close to my parents separated by the Solent where we often sailed.

It was hard to hoist in as I stared through two fences: curled up in a wooden shelter, was Casper. His thick handsome mane crowned a flash of blue eyes looking out at the world about him – composed and at rest. Only a meter between us. Snuggled up to him was another white furred body – his half sister Frosty I was to find out.

The siblings were affectionate companions – licking the other’s glossy flanks. They yawned within a beat of each other – revealing fang-filled jaws that would make light work of any prey.

It is too easy to project human qualities on our animal counterparts. But there is an indisputable grace to big cats. The two White Lions exude regality. Nature’s supreme predator is the legendary King of the Beasts. Watching on, such mythology does not seem sentimental – but appropriate.

Born in 2006 at a zoo in the West Midlands, Casper has been loved into thriving health over the last six years. Details are spare as to the sorry chain of events and circumstances that lead such animals to end up on the Isle of Wight. What is disclosed in Casper’s case is that he arrived suspicious of human handlers. Born in the same zoo, Frosty followed Casper to Sandown after being rejected by her pride.

Frosty got up to urinate straight outside their shelter. Acknowledging her, Casper growled very quietly and moved to sniff her scent. Barely audible, I could still feel the lion’s deep-throated vibrations through my body. It takes little imagination to turn up the volume. A lion roaring over its territory is an unforgettable experience. This display of dominance is for all nature to witness. Only the most driven or desperate would challenge such evident authority.

What are White Lions?

Classed as Panthera Leo, along with tawny lions, White Lions are not albinos, but a genetic rarity unique to one area: the Greater Timbavati and Kruger Park Region in South Africa. White Lions have a white marker gene, also carried by tawny-coloured lions in the region.

A White Lion’s genetic coding is key to its status as apex predator. Their colour is perfect camouflage among the territory’s sandy banks, where grasses are bleached and dried by the winter sun.

Casper’s species is technically extinct. Numbers are hard to track: possibly less than 13 white lions left in the wild. There are an estimated 200 – 300 in captivity worldwide.

Since White Lions were officially recorded in the 1970s, they have been hunted, poached, captured and reared for canned hunting – marketed as the ultimate trophy.

The first White Lion was scientifically recorded in 1938. Sightings had been reported in the oral stories of indigenous communities over many centuries – suggesting they had roamed in the area much longer than thought. White Lions are revered as sacred in African lore – the ultimate lion, the rarest of rare. The stories foretold their presence as guardians of peace and order – at a time of global imbalance and calamity.

Since the ‘70s, they have been hunted, poached, captured and reared for canned hunting – marketed as the ultimate trophy.

Canned Hunting & Captive Breeding: the costs

The canned hunting industry has a powerful voice – and generates a thriving income for hundreds of game reserve owners. The publicity from the slaughter of Cecil the lion caused outcry. But nothing has changed since. As a tagged lion Cecil should never have been shot, yet the American ‘hunter’ had not breached the law.

What many don’t realize is that a trophy hunt is engineered in confined spaces. Lions are drugged – to give the best chance of a kill. The conditions they live in before hand are every bit as horrifying.

Speed breeding is standard – caged lionesses mating as young as two-years-old. Inbreeding causes commonly occurring defects in the cubs. A cub is usually separated from its mother within a few days. These “orphans” also carry a price: volunteers pay to look after these cubs – believing they will be rehabilitated “back” into the wild.

Adolescent lions are used for photographic opportunities – and sometimes for a “walk in the wild with Lions” experience. Most tourists don’t know the true history of these young lions – that they will soon be moved on to the killing camps themselves. They are then advertised online for sale. One website I found was marketing its White Lion trophy for US $50,000. A White Lion kill can also fetch double that.

The industry around killing lions is growing. Lion bones and parts can be sold legally to Asian markets. Lions have replaced the almost extinct tiger as the main source of traditional medicine. In the last few weeks, the SA government agreed to annual quotas of 800 lion bones and parts from captive breeding for export. A lion carcass has become a commodity with a high market price.

Since the plans were first aired last September, there has been a flood of poaching incidents. 22 lion carcasses have been discovered in the Limpopo region alone – paws and heads removed.

Wild Lions Today. Caged Spectacles Tomorrow?

And you might wonder how wild lions are faring in the face of rising numbers bred in captivity. The number of Africa’s wild lions is plummeting. There are between 15,000 – 32,000 – compared to 200,000 twenty years ago. With an estimated 13 White Lions roaming free, there are calls for their urgent protection – to be recognised as a distinct species.

But that’s not had any impact. Furthermore, the SA Government is planning to downgrade the status of all lions from ‘vulnerable’ to ‘least concern.’

As if rising up against their destruction, last month two white lions escaped from captivity – with fatal consequences. They had been reared to walk with tourists. They killed a member of staff and seriously injured a second.

Sanctuaries, like the Isle of Wight Zoo, are responding to the commercial exploitation of these lions – all the more vulnerable for the price their rarity carries. It’s still a sad thing that endangered animals, such as Casper and Frosty, have to live out their days behind bars, unable to hunt or roam or socialize freely.

Before leaving, I returned for a last moment with the white lions. Frosty was prowling among the rocks – and settled at the top, a picture of poise and grace. She could have been posing as Africa’s iconic lion, surveying her territory far and wide.

Beneath her, Casper held my gaze. Slowly, he got up from the shelter, stretched and launched into a mighty roar. On and on it went, in rhythm to his breath; sound, strength, authority so brazenly displayed. This was not the song of defeat. Its primal power, to my ears, held the longing for home.

It is not only possible but probable that lions and other endangered wild cats will be witnessed only as caged spectacles in generations to come. Unless we course correct as environmental caretakers – and roar our outrage at the killing of lions, and captive breeding programmes.

At Sandown, Casper was sure of his place. He was content and at ease – the care for him obvious. But make no mistake, through the bars surrounding him, this White Lion was assured of his rightful claim as King of the Beasts.

(1619 words)

Mags MacKean ©

Author, The Upside Down Mountain
“Sat Nav for men and women of the road less travelled”. Daily Express