/ 18 March 2005

White lions return to Timbavati

Three white lions have been reintroduced into the heart of the Timbavati, almost 30 years after their species disappeared from the famous private reserve bordering the Kruger National Park.

The three white lions arrived in the Timbavati heartland barely a week before a major row erupted between Bantu Holomisa, MP and president of the United Democratic Movement, and the Timbavati chairperson, Tom Hancock, over commercial trophy hunting in the reserve.

On Wednesday Holomisa called on Minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism Marthinus van Schalkwyk to place an immediate moratorium on commercial hunting in all the private reserves adjoining the Kruger, pending an independent investigation.

He pointed out that Kruger animals, including lions, which moved into the Timbavati and other neighbouring private reserves, are vulnerable to being shot by trophy hunters.

”In essence, Tom Hancock appears to be saying that the Timbavati has been created as a killing zone, into which [Kruger] game can be lured for the Timbavati’s own commercial gain,” said Holomisa. ”Surely we cannot condone the destruction of a national asset for the commercial gain of a private institution, and the pleasure of a select group of rich hunters? What is the use of protecting animals in [the] Kruger if they are shot in a neighbouring reserve?”

The white lions of Timbavati created an international sensation when they were first spotted west of the Kruger park in the mid-1970s. White lions are leucistic — they have whitish fur because of a recessive gene, and are not albinos.

When the white lions were found in Timbavati, they were regarded as more than just a scientific curiosity. Local communities and traditional leaders endowed them with a spiritual and cultural significance that has endured.

But they were removed from the wilds after Chris Mostert, a Limpopo canned lion breeder, allegedly stole one of the white lions from the reserve. Amid fears that the other white lions would be stolen or hunted, they were sent to the Pretoria zoo — with the aim of breeding more white lions and eventually returning them to the wild.

It has taken more than 25 years for white lions to return to Timbavati. Linda Tucker, author and founder of the Global White Lion Protection Trust, relocated Marah — a white lioness she bought from the Johannesburg zoo — and her two cubs into the area.

The three lions are being kept in a 300ha boma and will slowly be reintroduced into the wild. ”They are on a property directly bordering Timbavati, where a heritage site for the white lions will be established, and the first stages of a carefully phased reintroduction programme of the white lions back to the wild will take place,” said Tucker. ”However, until the Timbavati reserve changes its lion hunting policy, we would not support a reintroduction of white lions into the reserve.”

Tucker has secured an agreement to safeguard the white lions with the Mnisi Tribal Authority, which has a land claim on the Andover Private Reserve on Timbavati’s southern border.

Tucker and Holomisa say the lions’ return and the UDM’s row with Timbavati are unrelated, but not without significance.

”Holomisa is echoing the sentiments of the indigenous elders and chiefs of South Africa, who believe that lions … are sacred, and should be revered and protected,” she said. ”It is encouraging that prominent black leaders are prepared to stand up for this country’s ‘national assets’ alongside human rights issues … These majestic creatures were not protected by the previous government.”

Holomisa raised the issue of hunting in the Timbavati after he was approached by ”whistle-blowers” who own land in the 66 000ha reserve bordering the Kruger park.

He raised concerns about the killing of ”national assets” after the fence separating Timbavati from the Kruger was brought down in 1994. Hunting in the Kruger is forbidden, but commercial trophy hunting is allowed in many of the privately owned nature reserves on the west of the Kruger.

Holomisa called on the minister to set up an independent investigation where all the parties involved would present their version of the matter.

Hancock threatened to take legal action against Holomisa and Mail & Guardian Online after it reported on the dispute earlier this week.

He said the reserve ”complies with all provincial and national legislation and regulations regarding hunting — without exception. Holomisa appears not to understand the prevailing legislation relating to hunting, and the common law principal of res nullius [ownerless thing].

”The animals that cross between the Kruger and the Timbavati are ownerless. The state chooses to regulate the utilisation of these animals through legislation, and the issuing of permits, to which we comply.”

  • Meanwhile, the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism said it has received ”hundreds” of public submissions commenting on its proposed ”canned” predator hunting legislation. The period for submissions closed on Tuesday, and will be followed by three public workshops in April.