March 4, 2016–Linda Tucker and the White Lions
In 1991 Linda Tucker, a former L’Oreal model and London executive, was on safari in Timbavati at the edge of South Africa’s Kruger National Park. Sitting around the campfire one night, she describes the “primal sounds” of roaring lions in the darkness surrounding them.
The legendary white lions of Timbavati are gravely endangered. Hunted to near extinction, there are only 7 left in the wild. Around the fire that night, Tucker and her group had hopes of catching a glimpse of a white lion. They followed the sound of the roaring.
What follows is a life changing encounter with lions and an indigenous woman of Timbavati. They drove their vehicle into the bush and as soon as the glowing eyes of the lions showed in the headlights, their open topped vehicle shuddered to a halt. A tree had jammed under their axle, breaking their steering column. They were stranded and defenseless and surrounded by lions.
The lions grew agitated, snarling and pacing. Tucker’s guide told them to sit tight and so they held a tense standoff. What happened next changed Tucker’s perspective about the relationship between humans and lions. Slowly, out of the darkness walked an old woman with a baby on her back, followed by two other children, a boy and girl. They had come from where the lions were!
The new arrivals climbed into the land rover and stared back into the night at the lions. A calmness descended. The woman’s name was Maria Khosa, a lion shaman and a renown sagoma, or medicine woman. Khosa explained that she heard the agitated roars of the lions and the panicked shouts of the humans that night and knew they needed help. For Khosa, the lion is not an enemy buy a guardian spirit.
Tucker’s brother who was in the group left with the boy to get help. They walked through lions and darkness back to camp with no incident and eventually found rescue.
The incident had a huge impact on Tucker who tried to return to her regular life. She couldn’t stop thinking about the white lions though.
White lions are not albinos. Their white color comes from a rare genetic variant. They are only found in one place on the earth, in the Timbavati. 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 has devoted her life to saving the white lion. Her book Mystery of the White Lions: Children of the Sun God is an account of her life and work with the lions, much of it being done at a distance, to preserve the wildness of these animals.
“I would love to walk amongst the lions and cuddle the baby cubs,” she said in a recent interview. “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.”
Her goal continues to be educating people about these animals and the horrors of trophy hunting. Her trust also works to keep vast tracts of land for the lions to roam freely and protected.