A rare white giraffe, photographed last week at a national game reserve in East Africa, could become a target for poachers, an ecologist said.
The stunningly pale calf was first discovered in Jan. 2015 in Tanzania’s Tarangire National Park. Now a year old, her chances for survival into adulthood are good if left unmolested, said Derek Lee, founder of The Wild Nature Institute which is based near the park.
Lee said he giraffe is not albino, but leucistic, meaning that most of the cells in its skin are not able to produce pigment.
"One way to tell the difference between albino and leucistic animals is that albino individuals lack melanin everywhere, including in the eyes, so the resulting eye color is red from the underlying blood vessels," Lee said.
A park guide has christened the giraffe Omo, after a local brand of laundry detergent. Lee said he’d be happy to entertain other names.
Lee answered questions about Omo this morning from his base in Arusha, the safari capital of Tanzania.
How did you first discover Omo?
We use digital photos of each giraffes’ unique spot patterns to identify individuals with the help of pattern recognition software. We are documenting births, deaths, and movements of more than 2,100 individual giraffes across 4,000 square kilometers of landscape that is a patchwork of national parks, a cattle and wildlife tourism ranch, Masai livestock rangelands, and farm fields.
We are studying giraffes in a landscape where lots of people live side by side with giraffes, so we can learn where giraffes are doing well, where they are not, and why, in order to protect and connect the areas most important to giraffe survival. We drive 1,000 km of tracks six times per year to collect our photo captures, and we found Omo during one of our regular surveys.
How common are leucistic giraffes? Have you seen one before? Are there any in captivity?
It is very rare, this is only the second record of a white giraffe in Tarangire over the past 20 years or so, among more than 3,000 giraffes in the area.
Does its rarity make it a target for poachers? If so, how is the preserve protected?
It is illegal to kill giraffes in Tanzania, as it is the national animal, but illegal market hunting for meat is well known to be rampant around Tarangire. Unfortunately all giraffes, not just the white ones like Omo, are threatened by bushmeat poaching. Fortunately, Omo lives in a national park where she has the highest chance of survival thanks to anti-poaching efforts in the area. We hope Omo’s popularity will raise global awareness for the problems facing giraffes.
How does its unusual coloring effect its relationships with other giraffes in the herd? Does she run the risk of being ostracized?
It's interesting that people wonder whether Omo is living happily within her herd. She is always seen closely associating with a large group of normally colored giraffes. I think people love the fact that Omo the white giraffe was accepted by her more typically colored peers, because it speaks to the human aspiration of tolerance and acceptance of those who look different and are not normal.
Please tell me a little about yourself. How long have you been in Tanzania working to preserve animal habitats?
I am a professional wildlife biologist originally from Lodi, California. The Wild Nature Institute is me and my wife Monica Bond as the nexus, but with lots of other partners and co-operators in our network that are all critical to accomplishing our important work of science, education, and advocacy for the preservation of wild nature.
When we are not out in the bush collecting data, we live in Arusha, the safari capital of Tanzania. We have been here since January 2011, when we started Project GIRAFFE. Tanzania is the greatest wildlife destination on earth in terms of diversity and abundance of large mammals, as well as having amazing bird life, amphibians, insects, and marine life. It’s a wildlife paradise so as wildlife biologists we were naturally drawn here.
At what age will Omo be able to reproduce?
At about 4 years old she will be mature.
Could the leucistic variation be passed down to the next generation?
Some leucistic animals have been selectively bred to maintain the trait, and some populations of wild animals are all or mostly leucistic.
What dangers might she face in the park before reaching the age of reproduction?
The first year of life is very dangerous for wild giraffes, because they are small enough to be killed and eaten by lions, hyenas, and leopards, so only about 50 percent of calves born survive their first year. Now that she is over a year old, her survival chances are quite good, because her size protects her. I don’t think her coloration will affect her lifespan relative to natural predators, because she has already passed over that hurdle for the most part.