Tiny red wildflowers decorate the lush grass where a regal predator naps. It’s a hot South African afternoon in February. A huge blond head pops up, its long fur tousled. But even bedhead is beautiful when you’re a rare white lion. Matsieng (pronounced mat-SING) blinks, yawns and looks around. His translucent green eyes follow a vulture circling overhead. Perhaps there’s a kill to scavenge nearby.

In Sepedi, a language native to the Timbavati area where he has lived his whole life, “Matsieng” means “great star hunter.” The quiet “coo, coo, coo” of an emerald-spotted wood dove lulls him into a drowsy state. The 400-pound cat flops his royal self back down into the tall grass, invisible again.

What is a white lion?

A white lion’s fur is light blond, but these big cats are not albino. Albino animals lack pigment in their skin and, as a result, have pure white hair and pink eyes. White lions vary from light to dark blond. Their eyes appear blue, green or gold, depending on the light. They have dark-tipped ears and dark noses.

A white lion can give birth to a white lion cub, but a tawny lion can, too — if both the mother and father carry the rare white gene. (Genes are like instructions for how a living thing looks and functions.) But white lions are found in the wild only in South Africa’s Timbavati region. In the ancient African Tsonga language, “Timbavati” means “the place where the star lions came down.”

Legends tell how they came to exist when the sun took the form of a lion. African elders say white lions have lived wild in the area for many centuries.

Where have all the star lions gone? They were always rare. But after they were “discovered” by Westerners in the 1970s, white lions have been captured for commercial operations such as zoos and circuses and have been hunted nearly to extinction. In South Africa, white lions are bred in captivity for “canned hunting camps” where foreigners (many of them Americans) hunt and kill captive lions in fenced-in areas.

Saving white lions

In 2002, a South African woman named Linda Tucker started an organization to protect white lions. With help from donors, Tucker’s organization, the Global White Lion Protection Trust (WLT), purchased 5,000 acres of Timbavati land where three small prides — or families — of white lions live, wild but protected. According to the WLT, only 11 are left in the wild.

Three of those lions were born at WLT, but the organization focuses on education and conservation — not breeding — to secure a future for white lions. Too much breeding among animals that are related can lead to serious health and behavioral problems. (For that reason, U.S. zoos that are part of the American Zoological Association no longer breed white lions.)

Tucker and partner Jason Turner, a WLT lion ecologist, live on the property in a “rondawel” (a round house, or hut). They work, eat, drink and sleep to the sound of lions roaring. They love to track lions by moonlight.

“There’s a quality of love that humans have forgotten about,” Tucker says. “When you live with nature, you start to get it back.”

Tracking prides in the wild

Leaving Matsieng to nap, Turner reaches out the window of his safari vehicle and holds up a radio receiver. The vehicle rumbles over miles of rough terrain, closer and closer to another pride. By listening to his receiver’s clicks and beeps, he gets a reading on the location of the lions, who are wearing radio collars.

“We’re close,” he says.

He turns off the ignition, and the vehicle rolls to a quiet stop. Zihra (ZEYE-ra) and Nebu, Matsieng’s mother and his sister, rest nearby, their sky-blue eyes sleepy, bellies bulging. “They had a kill this morning,” Turner says. “Wildebeest.”

The up-close view of white lions in the wild is unusual, even in South Africa. WLT isn’t open to the public, but it allows a small number of tours and retreats.

“It’s very special to see a fully wild pride of white lions enjoying the spoils of a successful kill,” Tucker says. “In the end, it’s the most loving gift we can give them: their freedom.”

Lion Protection Trust

Did you know that lions in the wild could become extinct during your lifetime? “All lions in South Africa are in crisis,” says Linda Tucker, founder of the Global White Lion Protection Trust (WLT). The organization is working to reestablish white lions within their natural habitat and protect them. Here’s how you can help:

●Learn more about the white lions or join the WLT at www.whitelions.org.

●Read all you can about lions and saving endangered species. Check out “National Geographic Kids Mission: Lion Rescue” by Ashlee Brown Blewett.

●Share what you know about lions with your family, friends and classmates!

Lions close to home

This winter, the Smithsonian National Zoo welcomed six lion cubs of the tawny variety. Ten-year-old African lion Nababiep (“Naba”) gave birth to two cubs about eight weeks ago. This month, Naba’s sister, 9-year-old Shera, delivered four cubs.

Check out this growing pride on the zoo’s Lion Cam at nationalzoo.si.edu/webcams/lion.cfm.