Just a decade ago, only wishful thinkers could dream of seeing a white lion. Though a part of South African folklore, they seemed to exist more as rumor than reality.
They were reportedly sighted in the late 1930s ... then disappeared. They were rediscovered in the mid-1970s ... only to again vanish from human view. They were thought extinct until they were seen in 2006.
And now you can see one less than an hour northeast of Charlotte: Michael made his public debut last weekend at Tiger World, the nonprofit animal conservation center in Rockwell. Can’t miss him – he looks just like a 3-year-old lion would appear, but nose to tail, his fur is the off-white of a polar bear.
This type of big cat is quite rare: Only 500 white lions are said to live in captivity around the world. Perhaps 11 remain in the wild, in the Timbavati area of eastern South Africa, in and near Kruger National Park.
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Their scarcity was initially thought to be due to coloration: Because their white fur would make them easier to spot in the South African brush, it was assumed they were less effective hunters; moreover, the distinctive fur color would make them easier prey for human hunters.
But experiments showed these animals hunt as well as any lions. While hunters do seek white lions, genetics plays a role in making them rare. Conservationist/author Linda Tucker (“Mystery of the White Lion”) has written that white lions carry a recessive gene that accounts for their fur color; both parents can be standard-looking lions but they must both carry that recessive gene. Testing shows all white lions trace their ancestry back to this genetic mutation, found only in the Timbavati area.
According to Tucker’s Global White Lion Protection Trust, various tribes native to Timbavati incorporated the white lion into their folklore, giving them spiritual attributes and considering them sacred messengers or still-here descendants of dead kings. One legend has it that white lions were the first animals to be created and will be the last to roar.
Michael – the one white lion from a litter of six tan cubs – was imported directly from a conservation center in Africa to his own new exhibit area at Tiger World. The exhibit, Timbavati Falls, is done up with an African feel to include a waterfall and a Land Rover.
Michael’s neighbors at the 21-acre center in Rowan County include 50 other felines – different subspecies of lions, tigers (Bengal, Siberian, etc.), lynx, servils, leopards (including the black leopard, aka Carolina Panther) and cougars.
Rounding out the population are bears, birds, baboons, monkeys, a mandrill, wolves and reptiles. And Brutus, a 900-pound Syrian brown bear.
You can buy feed cups for the birds, bears, monkeys and wolves. Special carnivore feeding tours are at 7 p.m. Thursdays (call for reservations).
Michael eats about 18 pounds of prepared raw meat per feeding. At 436 pounds, he has two years of growing ahead of him.
Bordsen is the Observer’s travel editor.
Visiting Tiger World
Directions: From Charlotte, take I-85 North to Kannapolis, Exit 63. Head east on Lane Street to Old Concord/Salisbury Road; turn right onto N.C. 152. Continue east to Cook Road. Tiger World is at 4400 Cook Road. Standard hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Thursday-Tuesday; closed Wednesdays. Guided tours available.
Admission: $15; $12 for ages 2-12 and 62 and older; group rates and passes available.