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Extremely Rare White Lions Caught on Camera: Short Film Showcase Filmmaker Q&A

In September 2014, a white lion cub was spotted in Singita Kruger National Park. While hundreds of these animals exist in captivity, only 13 remain in the wild, making the sighting unique. Black Bean Productions set out to capture footage of these remarkable big cats, whose coloration is not albinism but is caused by a less severe mutation. I spoke with James Suter of Black Bean Productions about seeing these rare animals up close.

How did you hear of the white lions in Kruger National Park?

Through Singita Kruger National Park. I worked for Singita, on this private concession within Kruger, where Singita is based. I was a game ranger and field guide at Singita and have always kept up-to-date with what is happening in the area since my departure in 2011. I have a passion for wildlife and the bush and still host private photographic safaris. Oli [Caldow], director of photography for Black Bean Productions, and I have done work for Singita since starting Black Bean Productions in 2012.

The lions move in and out of this concession, but after spending so much time guiding in this region and coming to know the lions that frequent this area, it was exciting for me to hear that two were born here.

It is highly unusual to find these animals in this area. They were thought to be indigenous to the Timbavati area, at least 60 kilometers to the west. Not only were we in search of the white lion cubs, but there was an opportunity to track and locate a superpride that I had witnessed some three years back as a guide. To see the white lions born into this pride in this area, where he learned so much, was something quite moving.

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Why are white lions so unique and rare?

There are only 13 of these animals left in the wild. This makes these animals rarer than snow leopards. There have not been sightings in Kruger for decades. Their recessive gene makes them appear almost snow-white. It is like seeing a completely new animal, although [their color] is just a result of a rare recessive gene. They are not albino. It used to be believed that white lions could not survive in the wild. It’s for this reason that a large population of white lions reside in zoos.

More detail from Chris Bride:

“Their white color is caused by a recessive trait derived from a less severe mutation in the same gene that causes albinism, distinct from the gene responsible for white tigers. They vary from blonde to near white. This coloration does not appear to disadvantage their survival.”

What was it like to see these white lions for the first time?

It really was an unbelievable moment: the buildup of tracking them, the composition of this massive superpride—almost 40—and the area where we located the animals, the Nwanetsi concession, all made for an magnificent sighting. We also worked with an amazing team of guides and trackers from Singita, led by Deirdre Opie, who worked hard alongside us to locate the pride. This teamwork and the knowledge shared among all makes for an amazing experience. It’s not easy to sight these lions on any given day, as they move in and out of this area, and we were fortunate to have amazing encounters with them. It was more spectacular than we thought—really something magical.

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Did you encounter any challenges on the shoot?

Working in the bush filming wild animals is always a challenge. You have to know and read the bush, and it takes time to achieve what you set out to do. In this case, it was tracking a pride of lions in the Kruger National Park, an area approximately two million hectares in size. Being territorial, we of course had an idea about where to begin tracking. With limited shoot dates, there was plenty of pressure to find these animals. We had a great team working with us from Singita, and we were successful. But it is a challenge, and you must be patient and realize that a sighting is not always a given.

It has also always worked in our favor, as a production company and doing a lot of work in Africa, that I have a background in guiding. Having done this for a living—walked dangerous game and therefore had a fair amount of experience in the African bush—assists when we go as a team to film in wilderness areas. It means we are able to more confidently approach wildlife, being sensitive at all times and understanding the concerns and procedures put in place by guides and trackers that we may be working with at specific locations when on shoot. This understanding is integral, however there are always challenges, and wild animals are unpredictable, so you are constantly having to adapt and be alert.

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What are you working on next?

We are working on a film that looks at six survivors of rhino poaching and how they represent so many rhinos in South Africa, and the situation as a whole. We will be looking at their individual stories, as well as the bigger-picture story of what is currently happening. Other work involving wildlife includes covering a cheetah rehabilitation and a story about a team of people working in Damaraland in Namibia to save rhinos. They are working with the largest free-roaming population of black rhino worldwide.

We are also doing some completely different work for The Royal Portfolio and Volkswagen in Cape Town, South Africa. We haved worked with Singita for some time now and look forward to producing some great work for them next year, too.

To see more from Black Bean Productions, follow James Suter on Instagram.

National Geographic’s Short Film Showcase  
The Short Film Showcase spotlights exceptional short videos created by filmmakers from around the web and selected by National Geographic editors. We look for work that affirms National Geographic’s belief in the power of science, exploration, and storytelling to change the world. The filmmakers created the content presented, and the opinions expressed are their own, not those of the National Geographic Society.

Know of a great short film that should be part of our Showcase? Email SFS@ngs.org to submit a video for consideration.

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