While not technically endangered, the white lion is one of the rarest species on Earth. A 2018 report from the Global White Lion Protection Trust estimated fewer than 300 lions exist anywhere in the world. One of those lions—an eight-week-old cutie named Luna—happens to call the Tiger Creek Animal Sanctuary in Tyler home. Now, twice daily, she’s bringing her tiny paws and teddy bear ears to the public during showings.
According to sanctuary director Emily Owen, Luna came to the facility about two weeks ago, after a private individual rescued her from “a very dark situation” and brought her to the sanctuary. Things have looked up for Luna in the weeks since: While the facility mostly cares for older animals, they’ve taken in young cubs like Luna before, and she’s quickly formed bonds with the staff at the sanctuary. “She’s like a curious kitten right now,” Owen says. “She’s come out of her shell quite a bit. She’s very playful—she does a lot of things that a regular housecat would. They’re very much kittens in that aspect.”
For animals like Luna, captivity is often their best shot at survival. Estimates from the Global White Lion Protection Trust place the number of white lions in the wild between eleven and thirteen. The animals originate in the Greater Timbavati region of South Africa, but wildlife officials there don’t draw a distinction between white lions and their more pigmented cousins, so Luna’s relatives don’t receive endangered species protections. White lions aren’t simply albinos (although albino lions do exist). Rather, their coloration is the result of a rare genetic marker. Their scarcity and lack of natural camouflage makes them a particular target for hunters—indeed, according to Owen, most of the 300 white lions in captivity are in private hunting facilities, rather than conservation sanctuaries.
In an ideal world, Owen says, she’d love to take on a few of Luna’s cousins and begin a program to re-introduce them into the wild in a protected area. In the world we live in, though, she’s content to keep the cub safe, social, and cared for—and meeting new people twice a day. Right now, she says, Luna is mostly interested in a certain subsection of the sanctuary’s male staff and visitors. “She is very outgoing, and she definitely has a thing for beards,” Owen says. “I don’t know what that tells you—maybe one day she’ll have a craft beer.”