Review of the research report: “Effects of a colour variant on hunting ability: the white lion in South Africa”

by Graham S. Saayman PhD
(Cape Town, South Africa)

Review of the research report:
“Effects of a colour variant on hunting ability: the white lion in South Africa”
Graham S. Saayman, Ph.D. (Canada/South Africa)

The white lion, a rare colour variant of the African lion, Panthera leo, is virtually extinct in its natural, endemic habitat, a status exacerbated by its monetary value for the hunting and entertainment industries. The prevalent but unproven opinion that white lions are unable to hunt successfully and survive in the wild, since they lack the camouflage of their tawny conspecifics, has served to justify breeding them in captivity as lucrative trophies for the canned hunting industry.

The present investigation by Jason A. Turner, Caroline A. Vasicek and Michael J. Somers of the hunting success of the white lion evaluates the validity of this unsubstantiated claim. In so doing, the results of this meticulously designed and carefully executed study make an unique contribution to the scientific appreciation of this iconic animal.

The report per se is well organized, the text is lucid and reads well throughout. The review of leucism in the African lion and other mammals is helpfully summarized. The hypotheses, reflecting the central question of the hunting success of white lions, are clearly articulated. The methodology, systematic naturalistic observation, is well established, appropriate and rigorously applied. The tables and figures nicely illustrate the major results. The discussion is concise and the conclusions are definitive (see below).

Two groups of rewilded white lions were compared to a wild tawny lion group. Each group was observed daily over a period of 8 months in similar or identical natural habitats. Lions were radio collared to enable tracking for regular and predictable observation periods. In addition, data were also compared to other tawny lions in comparable small game reserves.
This costly study required the maintenance of free-roaming lions under managed, naturalistic conditions bordering the Timbavati Private Nature Reserve, the documented habitat of the white lion. Establishment of the study groups required rewilding of captive born white lions, following a strict protocol to avoid conditioning and human imprinting. The investigation demanded disease-free lions and prey, aerial counts and replenishing of prey species to control for prey density. Data were collected at similar periods during the year for each of the three groups studied in similar or identical habitats.

The age, sex and species of prey captured were recorded and the kill sites were mapped for comparison. Kill and consumption rates were calculated for the three groups, taking the age and size of lions in each group into account when determining the mean consumption rate. Appropriate nonparametric statistical procedures were employed to analyze the data.

The findings are unambiguous and demonstrate no significant differences in the mean kill and food consumption rates between these groups of free-roaming white and tawny lions. Ergo, the white lions hunted as efficiently as the tawny lions under identical conditions.

Reliable scientific evidence therefore dispels the fabrication that white lions are inherently maladapted to the natural habitat, thus justifying their sacrifice in the interests of short-term financial gain. Indeed, the results of this compelling study support the alternative view that the forcible removal of rare white lions from their natural habitat for use as profitable hunting trophies is a primary cause of their virtual extinction in the wild.

Collateral evidence on the effects of leucism on the hunting success of another apex predator is available from recent field studies by University of Victoria scientists of the white bear, Ursus americanus kermodei, a rare variant of the American black bear. The white or cream-coloured coat of the Kermode bear, like that of the African white lion, is due to a recessive gene. Contrary to the fallacy that leucism constitutes an evolutionary disadvantage, Kermode bears were significantly more effective at catching salmon during the day than black bears hunting in the same habitat in British Columbia. The evidence suggests that the salmon were less threatened by the silhouette of a white object as perceived from below the surface of the water during daylight hours.

This long-term study of the white lion recalls the classical work of the early ethologists, Konrad Lorenz, Niko Tinbergen and Karl von Frisch, who were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in 1973 for their discoveries concerning the function, cause, development and evolutionary history of patterns of animal behaviour. The rewilding process required the construction of the conditions necessary to reestablish this keystone species in its unique ecological niche. This process offered a rare opportunity to witness the emergence of the adaptive, species-specific behavioural repertoire in all of its rich manifestations. The carefully designed, costly research facilities retain an invaluable field site for the ongoing scientific study and conservation of the white lion. The scientific community and conservationists worldwide await further reports on this distinctive project with great interest.

Reviewer: Graham S. Saayman Ph.D. (London), R. Psych.
Adjunct Professor of Psychology
University of Victoria
Victoria BC

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