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Thursday, July 19, 2012

Zoo keepers get a shock after five ultra-rare white lion cubs are born in captivity to tawny-coloured parents

By Damien Gayle

These five stunning white cubs are among the rarest lions that exist in the world.

Born in Ukraine two weeks ago, three of them in a safari park and two in a zoo in the coastal city of Yalta, they all share a recessive gene that gives them their unique pure white colour.

They have been brought together to be raised by keepers at the Yalta Zoo. As yet the cubs have no names, but they will be given some in a few months when they grow up.

Cute: White lion cubs rest on a towel in the office of the director of Yalta Zoo in the Ukraine. The ultra-rare cats were all born a fortnight ago to tawny coloured parents

Chilling out: A white lion cub cuddles up to a teddy bear

Infant: A zoo keeper holds a white lion cub at feeding time

White lions are not albinos. Like blue eyes in humans, the animals' white colour is caused by a recessive gene shared by both parents.

Staff at Yalta Zoo, where the first two female cubs were born, said they weren't expecting the white cubs, which came from a normal-coloured tawny mother.

Alexander Dyakov, Yalta Zoo's vet told the International Business Times: 'We expected that the cubs would be beige or straw-coloured, the natural colour of lions, but we were really, really pleasantly surprised.

'That is, it's a great rarity for Ukraine, for Europe, for the whole world, white lions are a real rarity.

'And we have two female lion cubs, absolutely healthy, absolutely strong. We wait for them to grow up and be exhibited.'

The animals are being raised in the zoo director's office for the time being. The tawny lioness mother didn't produce enough milk to feed them so zookeepers give them a bottle every two hours.

Hungry: The tawny lioness mother didn't produce enough milk to feed her cubs so zookeepers give them a bottle every two hours

Someone needs a bib: A white lion cub drools some of its formula milk during feeding time

Surprised: Yalta Zoo Director Oleg Zubkov holds a white lion cub. Staff were not expecting the ultra rare white big cats

Adopted: Mr Zubkov and his wife Olga care for the animals in his office at the zoo

White lions are native to only the Greater Timbavati region of South Africa, an area characterised by white sandy riverbeds and long grass scorched pale by the sun.

They are regarded as sacred animals by the people of that region, but after Europeans 'discovered' them in the 1970s, many were taken from the wild to captive breeding and hunting operations, according to the Global White Lion Protection Trust.

These removals, along with lion culling and trophy hunting of male lions, depleted the gene pool and the animals have been technically extinct in the wild for the past 12 years.

In their natural habitat, white lions are regarded as 'apex predators', able to hunt successfully in day and night and take down prey as large as giraffes.

Majestic: A male white lion raised in captivity and reintroduced to the wild yawns as he basks in the hot African sun

Despite their rarity, white lions are not yet classified as endangered because biologists still regard them as ultimately the same as their tawny equivalents.

The Global White Lion Protection Trust is campaigning for white lions to be recognised as a subspecies of lions, so that they can be protected under international law.

However, the genetic marker that makes white lions unique has not yet been identified by scientists and research into the animals is ongoing.

The trust estimates that there are no more than 300 white lions in existence. In recent years it has reintroduced the animals to a nature reserve within Greater Timbavati in an effort to eventually reintroduce the gene to wild lions.



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