CINCINNATI (AP) — The gray squirrel’s tail darts between the tree’s roots. The movements are small, slight.
Just a flick of fur.
But even this subtle movement does not go unnoticed by a top predator. Not by the King of the Jungle.
Not, especially, by this rare, remarkable white lioness who stalks in the green grass, now just steps away from her unsuspecting prey.
The squirrel turns its back. The lion freezes. Locks her gaze.
Then, a 240-pound leap.
The squirrel easily darts behind a trunk in the exhibit. The white lioness turns away, too. That stalk is now a heavy walk. Defeated.
The hunt is done in just seconds, partly because that lion’s leap is more like a lean. A stretch of a neck, maybe.
That’s what remains of a leap, the one of a 17-year-old lion, a species that typically only lives 17 years in human care.
This lion named Gracious has only known human care.
She was born here at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden in 2001, now the only one living from a four-cub litter. Her parents were a gift from lion tamers and entertainers Siegfried Fischbacher and Roy Horn.
Gracious is already one of the last white Panthera leo, the last of her kind in the entire world.
There are only an estimated 11 left in a 200-square-mile region in South Africa, where her species is known as the King of Kings. Maybe 300 more are in zoos and hunting operations across the planet.
And Gracious, along with her mother, Prosperity, 20, are two of the oldest, if not the oldest, white lions in the world.
Both are, no matter what else, the last white lions at the Cincinnati Zoo, home to this striking animal for the past two decades.
This 20-year period has also seen unprecedented changes in the global lion population, due in part by both new and renewed threats.
The species, white or not, is dwindling. And these white ones, a genetic peculiarity, are even more at risk in one big way: They are far too pretty for some trophy hunters to pass on.
The white ones were, in fact, technically extinct in the wild for 12 years.
But nature, it turns out, had other ideas.
In all ways, white lions are still lions. Just somehow more special, more beautiful than their blonde brethren.
Their appearance is the result of a rare color mutation, the result of a recessive gene in the African lion.
Think of it like blue eyes in humans. Both lion parents must possess the gene to produce a white cub.
It doesn’t mean that both lions have to be white to produce a white cub, either. (Again, just like how blue-eyed babies are born to a brown-eyed couple.)
And, no, the whiteness does not mean these animals are albino or have no pigment. White lions still have black noses and what appears to us like black eyeliner.
Technically, scientists call the coloring “leucistic,” or lacking dark pigment.
And all adult white lions aren’t exactly pure-as-snow white, either. Take our lions, Gracious and Prosperity.
They were both born white but are now more the color of a barren desert. Still, put one side-by-side with the common, tawny African lion, and the difference is clear.
That’s where the physical variance begins and ends. White lions have no advantages or disadvantages in the wild actually.
That’s what Michael Dulaney says. He’s the curator of mammals for the Cincinnati Zoo. And he’s been the caretaker for these animals since they arrived.
There is some talk among conservationists, says Dulaney, that the white color is a disadvantage while hunting in the wild. Most African lions are, after all, the same color as the grasses in which they hunt.
That can’t be a coincidence.
However, Dulaney notes that most prey can’t distinguish color well. And lions hunt in groups. Lions don’t naturally survive — or die — alone.
But that physical variance has made these animals more of a target, a more precious prize, for the trophy hunter.
White lions have been bred for what is called “canned hunting operations,” meaning the animals are raised to be tourist attractions and then released, in a non-sporting way, just to be killed by paying hunters.
Experts with the Global White Lion Protection Trust actually believe that most of that 300 total in the world are living in hunting operations — not in zoos or sanctuaries.
Hunting has been the primary threat to the white lion since 1938, the year of the first written account of a white lion penned by a European.
The white lion, of course, had already been a part of its native region’s culture and history, well-documented for some 400 years in a region called Timbavati in what is now known as northeastern South Africa.
In the Xitsonga or Tsonga language, “Timbavati” means “the place where something sacred came down to the Earth from the heavens.”
That “something sacred?”
The white lion.
For some, this is the most sacred of animals. A sign of change. An embodiment of ancestors. Guardians of the land, according to the writings of Linda Tucker, the founder of the Global White Lion Protection Trust.
There’s a common regional phrase about the lions, too.
“If you kill the white lion, you kill the land.”
The white lion has enraptured humans for hundreds of years, by everyone, everywhere. That group includes the more than a million people who visit the Cincinnati Zoo each year.
Any time a white lion is born, the arrival garners headlines around the world. Siegfried and Roy, with their iconic white lions and white tigers, had the most successful show in Las Vegas for more than a decade.
The Cincinnati Zoo’s Prosperity is the lion of the lions. She is the official mascot of the United States Senate, a chamber where the most powerful lawmakers are known as lions.
Even Dulaney, who has worked the Cincinnati Zoo’s white lions for the last 20 years, still feels the duo’s exceptional status when he visits the exhibit.
Lions are already big, already impressive, he says. But the brightness of the fur? That feature makes the majestic creature even more shocking and even more thrilling.
Dulaney feels something else when he sees the lions, a connection to something larger.
The color morph, he says, is a manifestation of the capriciousness of creation, that nature comes up with different changes in population every now and then.
These anomalies are beautiful. Deviations and diversity are wonderful.
White lions came to Cincinnati for one reason: To, well, make more white lions.
In 1998, the zoo already had a stellar record for breeding, dating all the way back to 1878. That year, Cincinnati welcomed the first California sea lion ever born in captivity.
It was followed by a century of firsts. The first test-tube gorilla was created here. The first elephant conceived and born in Ohio since the Ice Age. The first Sumatran rhino bred in 112 years.
Those accomplishments all add up to why Siegfried and Roy permanently loaned two male lions, the late Sunshine and Future, and one female, Prosperity. (Sunshine and Future hailed from the duo’s German facility; Prosperity was born in Las Vegas.)
They were all less than a year old when they came here.
In 2001, Sunshine and Prosperity had four cubs, Gracious, and three males, Wisdom, Legend and Courage. All of the males went to the Toledo Zoo. The last white lion died there in 2015.
Sunshine died that same year at the age of 17. He was under anesthesia for a medical procedure. Future, also 17, was euthanized just months before because of his deteriorating health. He had not been able to walk for days.
Today, Prosperity and Gracious are in good health, Dulaney said. For their age, of course. That’s what their doctors say.
It’s what their behavior — how they walk, how they eat, how they interact — says, too. (Lions, by the way, sleep 20 hours a day. When we see these lions lounging in the sun most of the day, and most days, that isn’t a warning sign of health troubles.)
In the past two decades, one thing has not changed: Prosperity and Gracious’s dynamic.
They are still mother and daughter.
“Prosperity rules the roost,” Dulaney said. “Gracie looks to her. (Prosperity) will be the first to check out (the exhibit), and Gracie will follow like a good daughter will.”
Gracious is a lot more outgoing than her mother, he said.
Curious. Playful. And a bit more unrefined.
That’s why she was the one who stalked that squirrel on a recent weekday.
Still, she follows around her mother. “Grace looks to mom for approval,” Dulaney said.
Lions, of course, stay together. They are not lonely. They are a group.
That’s why zoo officials are already planning what they will do when one of the lions dies, presumably the elder Prosperity. They have been talking about it for the past year or so.
Caretakers are considering moving Gracious to a different facility or another place in the zoo. She’s too old, Dulaney said, to introduce her to another pack of lions.
Instead, the keepers would have more contact with her. They wouldn’t go into the exhibit for about 15 minutes like Roy did when Prosperity arrived at the zoo but they would be closer to her, in a way.
“The keepers would be her pride,” he said.
People are her only option.
The zoo hasn’t bred white tigers since Gracious was born. They won’t again.
It’s not really looking like any zoo in North America will. At least, not on purpose. (Remember: Two tawny lions can produce a white tiger if they both have the recessive gene.)
These days, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which includes Cincinnati’s zoo, focus on managing the population of African lions.
That is the focus because that is the crisis. The African lion is now considered a vulnerable population.
During Prosperity’s lifetime, the overall lion population has decreased by about 40 percent because of man and because of nature, because of poaching and because of disease.
When Prosperity came to the Cincinnati Zoo in 1998, there were only 25 white lions in the world. Now, there are only 11 left in the wild.
But there is hope.
In 2014, a litter of four white lion cubs showed up in South Africa. They are the first of their kind to be photographed.
They are lions learning how to be lions.
In the images, the newborns trotted through the dirt. Tumbled through sticks. Nuzzled their mother.
She was a white lioness with a fierce, cobalt stare. Her gaze pierced the camera lens.
She has just met mankind.