Effects of a colour variant on hunting ability: the white lion in South Africa
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Background: Coat colour variation has been recorded in several mammalian taxa, including large felid species. White lions are a rare colour variant of the African lion, Panthera leo, that only occurred in the wild in the Timbavati Private Nature Reserve and southern Kruger National Park, South Africa. Although white cubs were born in the Timbavati Private Nature Reserve in 2006, 2009, 2011, and 2014, and in southern Kruger National Park in 2014 and 2015, no adult animals had been seen since 1994. It has been suggested that white coat colour prevents free-roaming lions from hunting successfully and therefore surviving in the wild. This hypothesis was investigated under managed free-roaming conditions in two fenced areas since no adult white lions existed in the wild at the time. Two separate groups of white lions were rewilded and their hunting success evaluated. Prey density, availability of preferred prey and habitat type were similar to that of the white lions’ natural habitat of Timbavati Private Nature Reserve. Wild tawny lions were released into the study area and their hunting success recorded. All kill data were then compared to that of wild tawny lions in other small wildlife reserves in South Africa. Results: There was no significant difference between the mean kill rate or mean consumption rate of the two white lion groups and: (i) the tawny lion group in the same study area, (ii) wild tawny lions at the Madjuma Lion Reserve (MLR), Karongwe Game Reserve (KGR), Welgevonden Game Reserve (WGR), Makalali Game Reserve (MGR) and the Associated Private Nature Reserves (APNR) in South Africa. Conclusions: White lions are capable of hunting self-sufficiently under managed free-roaming conditions in a small fenced area, suggesting that white coat colour does not prevent free-roaming white lions from hunting successfully in their natural habitat. We suggest therefore that the hunting behaviour of white lions be studied under fully free-roaming conditions.
- RESEARCH: Somers M