Cool. Insanely. Awesome – The Great White Lions of Timbavati

We sit quietly on our game truck and watch in awe as the lion duo commandeer the road, owning their space calming and purposefully. We are on an early morning drive and spent some time tracking the lions. We caught them at that time of the morning when you really couldn’t be bothered with visitors and yet there the knock goes anyway. We stare intently, amazed at this opportunity to see these great lions in the wild.

lions-brothers

Matsieng and Zukhara are white lion brothers living in the reserve.

We were  visiting the  Global White Lion Protection Trust (GWLPT) on a small private reserve in Timbavati, Limpopo and had been tracking the pride all morning hoping to catch a glimpse of them. Alas, my spotting skills have not improved much but I’m pleased to share that my ‘seeing and identifying what others have spotted’ skills have largely improved.

white-lion-tracking

Tracking the lions on an early morning trip. They are monitored to assess how they are handling being in the wild.

 

Our trip incorporated many different elements from lions and science, to traditional medicines and ceremonies, to the community’s youth creatively engaging in conservation and leadership. There were stories of poachers killing lionesses in the night; leopards eating cattle; spirits speaking through people, to people and to the animals; people communicating with animals; and one lone woman with a baby on back calming walking through an angry pride of lions to protect a broken down vehicle with terrified travellers. It was a lot. Borrowing from the last line from a  youth performance we attended (yeah, there was that too), the whole trip experience was “Cool. [Insane]. Awesome”.

 

The only time I’d seen a white lion was in captivity years ago. Actually, now that I think about it was at a theme park in Asia.

The only time I’d seen a white lion was in captivity years ago at a theme park in Asia. I remember thinking how sad it looked and clearly a long way from home.

 

The GWLPT advocates for the protection of the critically endangered white lions. They aim to re-establish the white lion in the Greater Timbavati and the southern Kruger Park regions where they once occurred naturally. Over the years, white lions have been removed from the area by captive breeding operations, wild hunting and trophy hunting; thus depleting the gene pool in the area.

pool

Camp Unicorn – our home for the weekend. Although not generally open to the public; small, specialist groups can book programmes.

 

unicorn-lapa

Linda Tucker and Jason Turner spearhead this programme and monitor the reintroduction of the white lions in their protected area. Linda is a conservationist and founder GWLPT, she has studied ancient cultural symbols and spent time learning from the medicine women in the area. Jason is a specialist lion ecologist and scientific advisor.

While they share a common goal, they come from different outlooks and this made each encounter with them rather fascinating. We did two game drives, one with each of them and it was fascinating learn about lions from a scientific and cultural perspective, and brought to light the impact that indigenous knowledge played in nature.

running-lion

Trotting lion on one of our game drives.

 

brothers

“Feeling happy I’m not a buck.” Joined by his brother, they ran right past our truck. I was surprised by how quiet they were. It was like a light breeze passing through.

 

The trust is also involved in community based conservation and combines indigenous knowledge and modern scientific methods. This peaked my interest because there are many initiatives that don’t actually involve the community or do so rather superficially and I was particularly interested in how this involvement manifested itself.

lunch-under-the-accasia-tree

A tasty lunch under the shade of an Accassia tree

 

After our morning drive, we were invited to lunch with community members, and the local chief and induna, and a performance by the StarLion Clubs. The clubs, who range from nursery to high school level, are programmes that foster principles such as leadership, identity, conservation and environmental sustainability.  It equips them to participate in conservation issues surrounding them and allows them to have their voices heard in what concerns them.

white-lion-ceremony

Community members prepare to accompany the youth to the dry waterbed where the concert will be held. The clubs have made these incredible white, larger than life animals from paper and wire.

 

The performance (staged in a dry riverbed where a lionesses had been killed by poachers) was part of the One United Roar campaign, aimed at celebrating and creating awareness to protect lions as a global heritage. The groups took up the challenge and developed great creative pieces from both the perspective of a lion and the community. They recited poetry and monologues, sang songs and performed dances about the place of lions in the community and the world.

concert

Linda and one of the medicine women accompany a Star Lion club into the riverbed.

 

In Timbavati, the local medicine women say that the white lion is a sacred animal that should be revered. With this in mind, before any of the performances start, a traditional ceremony by the local medicine women is done.  They burned incense and request permission to be in this sacred space, this is followed by a response from the spirits and ancestors. This is an important element of the proceedings, not just on the day but in general.

traditional-ceremony-welcoming

The traditional ceremony begins.

traditional-ceremony

Two tar Lion clubs watch the traditional ceremony from their “stage” for the evening.

 

The medicine women hold a lot of indigenous information about the environment and historical life in the area. I won’t delve into all the explanations shared with us because there is a lot of information and I certainly won’t do it any justice. Partly because my scepticism would cloud certain aspects but also because I believe people should tell their own stories in their own voices. Not an account of what someone saw one day, but really the essence of a life, an experience, the heartbeat of a space.

medicine-women-drummers

All the while home made drums are beating in the background. Intermittently, community members join in the beating of the drums too.

While watching the youth groups perform, a lady sitting next to me remarked on how fortunate the white lion trust was, in finding a community open to joining forces and working together in the manner that they did, not all would. Some might not find Linda’s desire to learn about the indigenous culture and history to be genuine. They would question the motives harshly. It was an interesting conversation, and I’m sure not all community members agree on the projects and programmes, there was a genuine spirit of participation there. There was support of one another and they came together for lions and for youth. Which, I think, is pretty cool.

After looking through my photos and reflecting on this trip. I was worried that this post would end up being “the story of “what?” There were so many things I didn’t get but still wanted to learn more. In the end, it came down to just opening my mind and allowing an alternative thought to permeate there a while before judge too harshly. I’m just happy to see the youth roaring about things affecting their community.

You can learn more about the plight of the white lion here.

walking-away

Many say they cannot hunt in the wild because they cannot camouflage themselves but in the Timbavati, they seem to be doing just fine.

I was a guest of Global White Lion Protection Trust. The opinions expressed are my own. 

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