A family of extremely rare white lions are about to be released into the wild in a step conservationists hope will save their 'species' from being condemned to captivity.
White lioness Zihra, her mate Mandla and their three one-year-old cubs - sons Zukhara and Matsienge and daughter Nebu - are due to be freed in South Africa within the next few days.
They were each knocked out with an anaesthetic recently so that scientists could collar the big cats. This will help track the pride across the savannah in the future.
Blending in: Zihra and her three cubs blend in well with the scorched grass in South Africa
King of the jungle: Jason Turner (l) prepares the radio tracking collar for male Mandla with vet Peter Steward Rogers and vet assistant Janelle Genis
The white lions are not albinos but are the result of a rare genetic mutation unique to this area of the world. Some tawny lions carry the special gene which explains why some prides have the odd white cub.
Blending into the environment does not pose too many problems for the cats as the region is characterised by white sandy riverbeds and long grass bleached by the sun.
But the pale white lions saw their numbers in the wild tumble as they became either victims to trophy hunters or removed for captive breeding.
There are now only 500 white lions in captivity but they are not protected under law because they are not yet classified as their own 'subspecies' of Panthera leo.
The lions have been bred in semi-captivity, with no human contact which would compromise their ability to survive in the wild.
An internal transponder is fitted to the abdomen of one of the cubs by vet Peter Steward Rogers
Enlarge Zihra sits calmly before being collared while her cub roars
The Global White Lion Trust was set up in 2002 by conservationist Linda Tucker. The last wild white lion died in 1994 and the Trust's objective is to return a healthy population to their natural habitat.
The Trust's scientific advisor Jason Turner said: 'The objective is not to captive-breed white lions. As the white lions were artificially removed from the wild, this program aims to redress the balance in returning white lions to their natural habitat and supplementing the white lion gene in their endemic area.
'At every stage of the reintroduction, human intervention has been restricted so that the cubs are not human imprinted. The cubs developed their hunting techniques naturally in a free-roaming environment.'
The pride dubbed the 'Royal family' will be released into a 1,000 hectare reserve in the Timbavati region. It contains plentiful prey including zebra, kudu, waterbuck, eland, nyala, bushbuck, warthog and wildebeest.
However the reserve's giraffes have been moved to another reserve because they pose a significant risk to the lions. Such moves are essential because only 20 per cent of lion cubs survive to adulthood.
Although experienced prides of lions are known to hunt prey as large as adult giraffe and even buffalo, one kick from a giraffe can critically wound or even kill a lion.
Hunting giraffe requires a very specialized technique that is passed on from generation to generation and the Royal pride will be only the second to be introduced to their endemic habitat.
White lioness Marah and her three cubs were the first to be reintroduced into the wild in 2006. Within a few months the founding pride were self-sufficient and the Trust's monitoring team recorded 95 kills in the first year. Marah tragically died while hunting in 2007 but her cubs continue to flourish.
A new hope: Zihara with her cubs when they were younger
Pride and joy: Family of white lions prepare to leave captivity to pioneer new life in wild | Mail Online