Thursday, 10 June 2010

The lion queen: The London woman who saved Africa's rare white lions from trophy hunters - and almost certain extinction

The first time she met a rare African white lion - destined for a trophy hunter's cabinet - Linda Tucker knew she had to fight to protect them.
Sitting round the campfire in the African bush with my sister and our friends, we drank beer while we watched the burning embers shooting sparks into the starlit darkness.
My safari holiday to Timbavati, on the edge of South Africa's Kruger National Park, seemed like the perfect antidote to my frenetic life in London. Back home, I worked long hours as an account manager at an advertising agency, having recently given up my career as a model for Yardley and L'Oreal.
It was the primal sound of roaring lions that drew us deeper into the bush that night in November 1991. The spirit of the legendary rare white lions had haunted the Timbavati bushveld for centuries.

The offspring of the more usual tawny lion, they are not albino but are the product of a recessive gene that inhibits the pigment in their fur and which also causes them to have blue eyes. Hunted to apparent extinction, they had not been spotted in the wild for almost a decade.

Now, our game ranger, Leonard, wanted to show us a tawny pride of lions that he believed might still carry the white gene and therefore had the potential to produce white cubs. From the urgent, exuberant tone the lions were making that night, Leonard was convinced that a lioness might have given birth, so we headed off into the darkness hoping to catch a glimpse of a white cub.

At the very moment that we picked out the glowing amber eyes of a large lion, there was a rasping sound from our open-topped vehicle and it came to a shuddering halt.
The agitated lions were too close for comfort. In the headlights I glimpsed shadowy shapes and caught the outline of a snarling lioness. The last thought in our minds at that point was whether she might have any white cubs.
As Leonard jammed the gears into reverse to make a speedy exit, the vehicle jolted violently. A tree trunk had got caught under the front axle, breaking the steering column. We were stuck.
Stranded and unprotected in the midst of angry lions, we waited. I was terrified and my legs felt like jelly. A fully-grown lion crouched not ten metres away, eyes fiery with rage.
Leonard ordered us to keep calm. 'If you run, the lions will bring you down,' he said. Reassuring us that he had his rifle, Leonard told us to just 'sit tight'. There followed a horrible, petrified silence.
But then, out of the blackness, a ghostly presence came towards us. It was an old woman and, unbelievably, she carried a baby on her back. Behind her followed a young girl and a wide-eyed youth.
In a trance-like state, each holding on to the other, they silently clambered into the Land Rover, sitting among us like phantoms. There they stared blankly into the darkness, into the field of lions from which they had come.
It's hard to explain the impact this woman had on our group - because all of a sudden complete calmness descended and my sister's boyfriend, Andries, announced that he was going to walk the mile or so back to camp to retrieve the other vehicle and save us all.

With a look of determination in his eyes, he pushed past the old lady and grabbed the youth saying, 'Come on, let's go'. He assumed the young man could show him the route and they set off, fearlessly walking through the lions, while we sat in the Land Rover, too stunned to speak.
As we watched their figures disappear into darkness, I tried not to think about what lay ahead for them. After waiting for what seemed like hours - although it was nearer 45 minutes - another Land Rover emerged from the bush. Miraculously, Andries had passed unharmed through the lion-infested darkness and had come back to rescue us.
When I returned to London I tried to put the events of that night out of my mind, but I kept thinking about this mysterious woman and how she had transformed our fear into courage.
I struggled on for three years, but the material world of advertising seemed trivial and soulless. So, feeling utterly exhausted by my life, I gave up my job, sold my house and returned to South Africa, determined to find out as much as I could about the woman who had saved us.
Living in a hut in Timbavati, I exchanged my designer suits and heels for jeans and boots. Even though my friends and family thought I was crazy, they knew I had to do this.
It didn't take long to find the mysterious woman. Her name was Maria Khosa and she was a 'lion shaman' and a renowned sangoma, or medicine woman.
When we met again, she told me how she had heard our panic-ridden shouts in the darkness that night and come to our aid. She explained that the lion was not an enemy but a guardian spirit.
Over the next six years, I spent as much time as I could with Maria, getting to know her, learning how important it was to love and respect nature - and the white lions formed a huge part of that teaching. To the tribal elders, they are sacred animals, but hunting has meant they had died out in the wild.
My first direct contact with a white lion was a female cub named Tendile. She belonged to Ed Hern, who owned the Rhino and Lion Reserve, about a 45-minute drive from Johannesburg.

Hern was hand-rearing the cub, but within weeks of her birth, trophy hunters were asking him how much they would have to pay him for the chance to hunt her. To my profound relief, Hern remained unswayed.
Given the white lions' rarity, it is not surprising that they mean big revenue, especially throughout the 'canned' lion trophy industry, which breeds lions in captivity in order to be shot by paying customers. Despite public outcry, it is a practice that draws clients from prosperous countries.
On the two occasions I visited Tendile, seeing her grow into a magnificent lioness, I knew that I wanted to save these animals.

Maria told me that I would be sent a sign to show me what I had to do next. I was somewhat disbelieving, but then I heard from a friend about a white lioness cub that had been born in a 'canned' hunting camp in a town called Bethlehem, in South Africa's Free State province, on Christmas Day.
It was the only sign I needed - I knew then that I would not rest until I had freed this cub and brought her to Timbavati.
Her name was Marah and I was able to make a secret visit to the camp to see her. She was like a little lion lamb, and I fell in love with her on sight.
To get her out, I enlisted the help of the courts and, fortunately for me, because Marah's father had been stolen from a zoo, it meant the zoo had a legal right to demand that she be handed over. The camp was raided by the police and Marah was rescued.
The plan had been for me to take her to Timbavati and set her free, but the zoo, realising that they had a prime genetic specimen for breeding, now refused to hand her over. I returned to the courts to fight for her once again, arguing that I had a contract with the zoo to adopt Marah. And, while I waited for the court to make a decision, Marah gave birth to three snow-white cubs.
It was during my fight to free Marah, which took me two years, that I set up the Global White Lion Protection Trust in 2002. But with my savings dwindling, I needed to raise money and awareness of our struggle to ensure the survival of the white lions.
I knew that the only way to protect them was to buy land in Timbavati, the white lion's ancestral home, and secure it as a protected area for them where they could live without fear of being hunted.
I couldn't afford to buy a large enough piece of land, but then Sheryl Leach, an American philanthropist and the creator of the children's TV character, Barney, the purple dinosaur, heard about the Trust and made a huge donation, so we were able to buy 2,200 acres.

Marah and her cubs arrived in Timbavati in 2004, and we had to ensure that the lions had as little human contact as possible so that they remained 'wild'.
From the start, she defied all the critics who said that because she had been born in captivity and having no camouflage because of her whiteness, she would never learn to hunt. But she tried - and, by day five, she had hunted down and caught a porcupine.
After five weeks, she was totally self-sufficient and able to feed herself and her cubs without any outside help.
A year later, we needed to introduce lions from other bloodlines to increase the population. Marah's two sons were now old enough to form their own pride, which they did with two tawny lionesses from the region.
The Trust also introduced another rescued white male, Mandla, from a different bloodline, who paired off with Marah's daughter, Zihra. Last year, she gave birth to three snowy cubs, the first white lion cubs to be born in the wild since 1991.
Tragically, after all Marah had been through, she died in 2007 while hunting - she'd crawled into a warthog burrow, which collapsed on her.
I have struggled to make sense of her death, because, without her, there would have been no Global White Lion Protection Trust. But I take some comfort from the fact that, just like her birth on Christmas Day, there is something symbolic about her dying at Easter time.
And so our fight to save the white lions and to see an end to 'canned' hunting goes on. We have two prides of nine lions, and we expect more cubs to be born soon. However, with more births, the amount of land we need increases because, once the youngsters grow up, they will need their own territory.
Today, I live within the safe area with my partner, Jason Turner - a lion ecologist who heads up the Trust's scientific projects - and our two prides roam free in their natural habitat. While Jason studies the genetics of the white lions, I am more focused on the mythical side, so together we make a great team.
People ask me if I miss my old life, but I can't imagine anything more rewarding than what I do now. These lions are my children. They recognise me, but I keep my distance and allow them their independence. I look at them like any mother with a brood of growing youngsters. And, in the end, the most loving gift you can give is freedom.

0 коментара:


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...
Twitter Delicious Facebook Digg Stumbleupon Favorites More

Design by Free WordPress Themes | Bloggerized by Lasantha - Premium Blogger Themes | Facebook Themes