I first met sacred spirit cats in the book my father gave me: “The White Lions of Timbavati”.
“Tsimba-vaati”, “the place where star lions came down to earth”, is part of South Africa’s Greater Kruger National Park, where locals revere the mutant felines as the continent’s most divine beings, children of the sun god.
Spirit lions keep the universal order, devouring those who break taboos. They can’t be slain by bullets or caught in traps. They simply vanish into thin air, changing their paw prints into human tracks.
And like their cousins, the white tigers, who are worshipped in Asia as deities guarding heaven, driving away evil and bringing good luck, white lions are extremely rare, one in ten thousand.
Recently, I met the descendants of Timbavati’s sacred lions in the flesh. And I became the property of a white lioness, Mia, and her mate, a white tiger aptly named Spirit.
My spirit cats inhabit a private game reserve in Thabazimbi, 600 kilometers from Timbavati. First day I volunteered in the facility, Mia stood out from the other blond felines. She’s immaculate as snow, with blue-green eyes.
She’s a notorious biter too, latching on to her victims, yanking flesh, more like a Nile crocodile than a big cat. Before I arrived, she hooked her owner’s ankle with a paw then clamped her jaws on the woman’s leg, inflicting deep, ugly gashes.
Still, I yearned to befriend the beautiful white lioness.
Spirit, her mate, took to me instantly, chuffing, complaining when I can’t hug him across the electrified wires of their pen. Mia hung back, observing our interaction.
Being a rank-conscious social cat, she wants to know my place in the pecking order before cozying up. Tigers, being the biggest felines, can afford to be cordial at once.
Mia hit it off with Spirit, fortunately. They can’t be separated thereafter and one day, they might produce white “tigons” (tiger-lioness hybrids) together.
When Mia finally approached me, Spirit became possessive and shoved her away. Unfazed, she sneaked in to kiss me when he fell asleep, got electrocuted by the wires and jumped back with a yelp.
Nevetheless, Mia was soon outrunning Spirit to greet me.
She loved to play with sticks so I always brought some when I visit. But it was her idea to pick up fallen twigs as soon as she sees me coming and carry them to me in her mouth.
I’d thank her and toss the twigs for her to fetch. How she managed to pick up the same stick among so many on the ground, I’ll never know. But she always retrieved the one I threw. And then she’d race back to me so I can toss it again.
Of course, when Spirit joins in, it becomes a furious game of chase and tug-of-war.
After playtime, we snuggle together, the cats hugging the ground to be as close to me as they can without touching the wires.
That started my love affair with spirit cats.
Back home, I was happy to learn that white lions and tigers live in Zoobic Safari. Snowy, their white Siberian tiger, reminds me of Spirit. He’s amiable, chuffing back at me through the din of screaming kids every time I chuffed at him.
Icy, the white tigress, rubbed against the bars, begging to be petted and wowed audiences as she paraded across the auditorium with her trainers.
The twin white lion cubs, Snow White and Beauty, looked like giant toothy ragdolls and made me ache for Mia.
Zoobic’s President, Robert L. Yupangco, rescued Mikael, a Siberian tiger who owned him for three decades. It was Mikael who started him in the safari business.
Now, he keeps a menagerie of 50 tigers, three of them white, plus one to two dozen lions, of which six are white. He’s setting up a breeding center for his spirit cats to supply his target of fifty parks nationwide.
In wildlife parks, circuses and zoos everywhere, spirit cats draw the biggest crowds, being the ultimate symbols of power, purity and grace. Of course, breeders can’t mass-produce them fast enough.
Captive breeding is the rule because white lions and tigers are technically extinct in the wild. They are so rare a single white male African lion can fetch P6 Million. A white male tiger, which is even more rare and classified as endangered, can go as high as P10 Million.
South African breeders sell white lion cubs starting at over P200,000 each but white tiger cubs can sell for P1.4 Million and pure white cubs, for P4.5 Million.
For centuries, white lions inhabited a single place on earth: Timbavati, where white sandy riverbeds abound with pale long grass, allowing them to blend in and hunt, mostly by moonlight.
But they were doomed as soon as the world discovered their existence.
After the book about Timbavati’s three white cubs came out in 1975, scientists mistakenly thought they’re albinos who can’t survive in the wild as their immaculate coats deprived them of camouflage.
Men forcibly removed the three white lions from their natural habitat and bred them in Pretoria’s National Zoo to preserve their bloodline. Their offspring populated international zoos though most ended up in canned hunting camps.
Succeeding white cubs born in Timbavati perished because the alpha males of their prides were trophy-hunted. The last wild spirit lion was seen in 1994, after which they became extinct.
In 2006, the Global White Lion Protection Trust (WLPT) re-introduced a pride of four white lions in Timbavati and found they hunted successfully, even better than their tawny kins.
Today, only seven re-introduced white lions survive in their natural habitat. Even so, white lions are not protected by law. They can be poached or legally trophy-hunted anytime and their extinction risk is even greater than the rhino.
In the past 20 years, wild lion populations plummeted by 80 per cent, from 100,000 to less than 18,000. According to Lion Aid charity, out of 49 continental African nations, lions have become extinct in 25, virtually extinct in ten and only have some possible future in 14. Just five places have more than 1,000 lions.
Hence, conservationists petitioned that the status of the African lion be upgraded from vulnerable to critically endangered and for the white lion to be classified as a distinct endangered subspecies.
Yet, trophy hunting continues to escalate. From 2001-2011, Africa legally exported over 7,000 lion trophies, excluding lion bones and whole carcasses, increasing 122 percent in the last five years.
South African big cat breeders have produced more lions in their farms than the actual wild population. This numbers include hundreds of white lions inbred to guarantee their white coat as they’re meant to be slaughtered at premium prices in camps charging clients P1.2 million to P8 Million to shoot big cats trapped in cages and tiny enclosures.
Today, they slaughter at least 2,000 lions every year for recreation. “The increase and volume are terrifying,” says an official of the charity Born Free.
The Professional Hunters Association of South Africa estimates that the country’s trophy hunting industry hauls in USD$91 billion, over P4 Trillion, a year. And that’s just South Africa.
The exotic animal market is a multibillion dollar industry, ranking just below the illegal drug trade and just above the illegal gun market.
Not surprisingly, the hunting lobby is impossible to overturn. Timbavati itself is a private game reserve. Commercial hunting of endangered species funds its operation. Earnings from its lodges, game drives and tourist packages comprise just a tiny part of its revenue source.
Its motto is “kill to conserve” because it needs cash. As the Timbavati Private Nature Reserve (TPNR) Chairman stressed two months ago: “the animals must pay to stay”.
And pay for it with their lives they will. Unless each of TPNR’s 50 members, who own the 53,392-hectare private lands in the protected area, consent to cough up over P700,000 levies yearly, the reserve runs on trophy hunters’ money.
Trophy hunting further depletes the horribly limited gene pool. Tawny lions in Timbavati still carry the rare white mutant gene, so any tawny lion killed could be one of the last bearers of the spirit lion’s genetic legacy.
As if that’s not enough, African breeders now trade in white tigers as well.
Data from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) showed Africa legally exported 102 live tigers, 16 tiger trophies, 6 tiger skins, 1 tiger skull and 1 tiger carcass from 2001-2010.
I can’t imagine the statistics of the illegal trade that slipped through.
Breeders can skirt the law by forging agreements with zoos to import tigers. Then they use any excuse to euthanize the cats for tiger parts to be exported to China for traditional medicine or for selling them to canned hunts.
If white tigers show inbreeding defects, breeders can get permission from state authorities to destroy the cat in a canned hunt. The government is useless. They can’t even police and manage the legal facilities.
A recessive gene similar to those of white lions produces white tigers who are not albinos but mutants – a rare pigmentation variant which occurs once in every 10,000 orange Bengals in the wild.
White Bengals were first recorded in India 500 years ago. In 1951, the last Maharaja of Rewa captured a white male and named him Mohan. He was mated with his offspring and all white tigers kept in zoos today descend from his inbred bloodline.
Because of the extreme rarity of the white tiger gene in the wild, the breeding pool was restricted to the small number of captive white cats. A hunter shot the last white tiger in 1958 and in the wild, it’s extinct.
Less than 2,000 tigers survive in the wild, although America alone has over 10,000 captive tigers, most of them in Texas, where canned hunters can shoot them for P1 Million up.
America has spawned a multi-billion dollar canned hunting industry. Over 2,000 big game farms operate in at least 28 states, 500 of them in Texas.
Of the 2,500 licensed animal exhibitors in the U.S., only 200 are members of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), which condemns the sale of exotics to hunting ranches. However, both members and unaffiliated zoos can sell their surplus animals to unscrupulous middlemen who re-sell them for canned hunts.
No law covers canned hunting in the U.S. The Animal Welfare Act doesn’t regulate game preserves or canned hunts. The Endangered Species Act actually allows endangered animals to be hunted if one can produce the proper permit.
If you can buy it, you can shoot it. That’s all there is to it.
Having volunteered in tiger and lion sanctuaries in Asia, South Africa and America, I found this extremely disturbing.
It’s impossible to know which game reserves cater to canned hunts. Many double as tourist facilities, zoos and sanctuaries, earning from lodges, game drives, bush walks, restaurants and souvenir shops.
They team up with schools and tourist groups to offer exotic caretaker training and volunteer programs. They put out fluffy cubs for photo-ops and petting sessions until they’re big enough to be sold, knowingly or unknowingly, for the slaughter.
A good number don’t do the canned hunting themselves. But they dispose of their stocks. And beloved white lions and tigers can end up pierced with arrows or riddled with bullets to be stuffed and displayed in someone’s house.
Canned hunting is like fishing in a basin using dynamite. Rich clients shoot the felines close-range with a shotgun, hand-gun or crossbow, either standing safely on the back of a truck or walking up to their targets trapped inside a cage or small confined areas.
Because the lions and tigers are hand-raised, many approach their would-be murderers, expecting to be petted or fed before they are blasted to death.
The client doesn’t want to damage his trophy via the coup de grace head shot, so he fires dozens of times in the cat’s body, leaving the animal to die slowly in agony.
Little consolation does it give me to know that Mia and Spirit may not suffer this fate.
The British couple who owns the 50-hectare reserve in Thabazimbi, where I volunteered, love their charges. They keep a menagerie of 25 big cats, including 15 white lions and a white tiger, many of them house pets.
Breeding lions is more of a hobby for them. They have other businesses. But they’re the exception rather than the rule.
Their first lions lived with them and slept in their beds until they’re grown. They still keep a couple of big white lions in their backyard, refusing to exhibit them because they’re not for sale. The lions they sold went to friends.
They like my bitey Mia and her loyal Spirit so much they will never be sold. Still, I fear for them.
Although they’re both perfect on the outside, they’re inbred. While they can live 20-25 years, a single disease can wipe them out and the rest of their kind.
I fear for all spirit cats and their normal-coloured kin who roam the planet, faced with so much adversity and greed. Men will kill them all and with them, the earth too shall perish.
(Reprinted from the cover story I wrote for Animal Scene Magazine.)