Linda Tucker has committed her life to protecting white lions. A rare variant of the African lion (panthera leo leo), white lions are found in only one place on Earth — the Greater Timbavati-Kruger National Park region of South Africa. The lions are gravely endangered, only seven of these majestic animals roam free in Timbavati today thanks to the Global White Lion Protection Trust that Tucker helped set up in 2002. The trust manages the Tsau White Lion Heartland, a protected wilderness area, and also works to protect the Indigenous Tsonga and Sepedi cultures that celebrate the white lion as part of their sacred heritage.
Tucker, a former model and ad executive who grew up in South Africa during the Apartheid, was in the US recently to promote her new book, Saving the White Lions: One Woman’s Battle for Africa’s Most Sacred Animal. Written in first-person narrative style, book tells the story of Tucker’s incredible, almost surreal, journey into the world of big wildlife conservation, her struggles to protect the lions against the notorious canned trophy hunting industry, unscrupulous zoo executives, and commercial traders that regard these rare animals as high-income commodities. Saving the White Lions is also, in part, a book about Tucker’s own spiritual growth starting from the night when a local medicine woman walked out of the wilderness and rescued her and a group of friends from an angry pride of lions. One of the most mystical stories in the book has to do with the birth on December 25, 2000, in a trophy-hunting facility in the little South African town of Bethlehem (I’m not kidding!), of a white lion cub called Marah.
I spoke with Tucker recently about her book and her efforts to save Marah and other white lions and the fine line she treads between conservation science and spirituality. An excerpt from our conversation.
Maureen Nandini Mitra: You are following three prides of white lions in the wild right now, correct?
Linda Tucker: Yes, we have reintroduced three prides of white lions to a protected area in the heart of their ancestral habitat. We have since discovered that there are a few occurrences of white lions in the neighboring areas, which proves that they are of conservation value because they are unique to the epicenter of a vast wildlife area called the Kruger to Canyon biosphere. Unfortunately trophy hunting still takes place in the neighboring wildlife areas, so the lions are still at great risk. [The reintroduced lions] are hunting successfully in the wild, it is magnificent.
You mention that the white lions are not albinos…
White lions are a distinct species, not just albinos of the golden lions. They are the result of a very rare genetic code that some golden lions carry. The code was discovered in 1997 by scientific research and is a genetic markup that dates back hundreds of thousands of years.
There is a lot of misinformation that is being put out about the white lions. First you will hear that they are albinos. You will also hear that they cannot survive in the wild because they have a lack of camouflage. That is completely untrue. They can camouflage themselves perfectly in the winter landscape when the earth is white and the grasses are silver. In summer in the thicker habitats you can get three meters away from a white lion and not know of it. This is all misinformation put out by people hoarding them in cages to justify keeping them in captivity.
In the many years you’ve been working to save these lions what are the biggest challenges you’ve faced?
The biggest challenges in wildlife today are manmade challenges. In our case that includes not only trophy hunting in the wild and removal of this rare subspecies into zoos and circuses around the globe, but something much worse. The lions are removed from the wild into captive breeding centers, where tamed lions are bred in cages to be shot. This malpractice is known as canned lion hunting, and it is legalized in our country [as well as] supported by trophy hunters around the globe.
Photo courtesy Global White Lion Protection Trust
Including the US?
I think that the American public would be horrified to know that over half of the lion trophies coming out of Africa today are from American trophy hunters.
How much does the white lion trophy fetch in the market right now?
It’s horrendous but a white lion trophy can fetch as much as $165,000 dollars. Some people would put the mortgage down on their house with that money; other people would send their children to school for an education, and some people would shoot a white lion trophy for that figure.
Apart from trophy hunting, another problem is poaching, which is also a massive threat. China has become very aggressive in its requirements for animals out of Africa, and [using] rhino horn and even lion bones into its medicinal practices. China is a huge threat to the survival of all endangered species in Africa.
In your book, in the passage where you first rescued Mara and her children, you were advised to not increase your contact with them. Did you manage to keep that distance?
That is such an important question. I would love to walk amongst the lions and cuddle the baby cubs, but the greatest love you can show for nature in a time when it is under such stress is to protect the wildness that was the original plan for nature. So we don’t have any contact [with the lions] at all. We ensure that there is no human imprinting of the lions.
These places where you can go and cuddle cubs are generally linked with the captive breeding industry, where the same baby cubs end up being shot later as trophies. I think if the public knew that, they would be horrified to realize that they are playing a part in signing the death warrant of baby cubs.
How do you monitor the prides that are now out in the open?
We have a scientific monitoring team that is part of the whole carefully phased reintroduction back into the wild. The team goes out at sunrise and sunset to track the lions. We are simply ensuring that they are safe and they have successfully hunted for themselves. It’s a security check; we don’t invade their space at all. If [the lions] want to come out and spend time with us which they sometimes do, that’s wonderful, but if we don’t see them that’s also fine.
Tell us about your current efforts to protect white lions from trophy hunters and ban canned hunting.
There really is no justification at all for malpractices of the kind that take place in canned hunting.… I don’t believe I can shut down trophy hunting of lions in general, but I can ensure that the white lions and the golden lions carrying the white lion gene in our area are protected.
Our immediate and long-term strategy is to either secure land, or change the law. The law currently allows trophy hunting of the big five [animals] in the region. That includes elephant rhino, buffalo, lion and leopard. If we release these high pedigree white lion prides back into the greater system, they can be hunted. We’ve had to secure vast tracts of land in the heart of the lion’s endemic habitat in order to create a protected area for the white lions to live naturally in their environment. We would like to gain much more of a protected area.
Photo courtesy Global White Lion Protection Trust
How far has that campaign come along?
There is a petition on our website that you can sign to ban canned hunting. The petition will be taken to our president because only he can overrule the high court ruling that declared that canned hunting is legal in our country. African lions are not considered an endangered species, though a bill [to declare them endangered], currently stalled in the US Senate would extend some measure of protection.
In your book you talk about how nature is magical and all magic is natural. Could you elaborate on that?
Just as important as the conservation value is the cultural value of the white lions. They are regarded as the most sacred animal on the African continent… White lions haloed in the morning light are truly the most beautiful animals imaginable. This has given rise to a lot of legends and myths. But a lot of the legends are based on profound truths that scientists should be taking very important note of. For instance, part of the legend is that these animals are actually snow animals. Not only do their genetics date back to a previous ice age, these are animals that might actually be anticipating climate change.
You had a spiritual awakening when you started working with the lions. How much of that informs your work?
It’s true that it informs all of my work because I no longer looked at [the mystical nature of lions] as beliefs of Indigenous people. When I started working with the elders and the high priests and medicine people of the Tsonga and Sepedi Indigenous people, I realized that they held secret knowledge very important for humankind today. It was knowledge that made me question some of the very foundations of my academic training.
In your book you talk about how in nature there is nothing supernatural. But in some ways you do talk about things that seem to be supernatural. They seem to be outside the realm of regular human experience.
Actually my teacher said that. He is one of the medicine people of the Zulu people. He was really referring, and I agree with him now, that God exists in nature. It’s magical, a miracle if you look at creation. Once you go into that stage of reverence you see magic happen around you all the time. You can speak with the animals or you can call up certain events. You know the idea that some medicine people can call or ask for rain, I’ve seen it happen. Once you connect with nature, miracles surround you. That is really what he was referring to.
And you have experienced that yourself?
I absolutely have and I look forward to experiencing more and more of that. It’s a condition that you come to in yourself. Once you have that condition of due reverence… the miracles happen around you all the time.
It must require immense courage to put forth these ideas and beliefs given, you know, what the standard western academic or even general cultural thinking about this sort of mysticism is.
It does require courage. It requires a kind of lion-hearted quality and once you work with such inspiring animals, you have the courage to do what it takes. I love them so much that it doesn’t matter whatever the challenge, I’ll do it because they are so beautiful and worth the challenge.
Have you encountered a lot of skepticism from people during this trip to the US?
I think what I have seen on this trip, and I have been to the States on a couple previous trips, is that there is almost a quantum shift in understanding. Many people, literally thousands more people on this trip have understood the importance of this kind of work. There was much less understanding [towards my cause] on my first trip nearly 10 years back. I think that this kind of material is really opening up as modern day people are [not only] accepting [the fact that] ancient knowledge is valuable [but also] that there are huge responsibilities we have to take up in governance of our Earth. You know there will always be skeptics, and that’s never bothered me. What I need to do is deliver the facts and people can take them or leave them.