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Explained: Why there is only one white giraffe left in the world

The white appearance of the giraffe is due to leucism, a genetic condition that causes skin cells to have no pigmentation.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: March 19, 2020 9:00:05 am
white giraffe, white giraffe hunted, why are white giraffes white, Garissa county kenya, giraffe poaching, giraffe hunting, giraffe population, express explained, indian express, leucism, difference between leucism and albinism File photo of the white giraffe spotted in Kenya in 2017. (Photo credit: Marc Napo/Ishaqbini-Hirola Community Conservancy)

Poachers have killed two extremely rare white giraffes in northeast Kenya, leaving just one such animal in the world. The two giraffes to be killed were a mother and her seven-month-old calf. The mother’s other male calf is the one that survived.

The white appearance of the giraffe is due to leucism, a genetic condition that causes skin cells to have no pigmentation.

The state of giraffes

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) had classified giraffes as vulnerable in the Red List in December 2016, when it noted that their population had dropped by over 40 per cent since 1985. Further, as per IUCN, large losses of the species have occurred in East Africa, where roughly 86,000 giraffes have died since 1985.

On Tuesday, a statement released by the Ishaqbini Hirola Community Conservancy said that Kenya’s only white female giraffe and her calf were confirmed dead in Garissa County. Killed by armed poachers, the giraffes were found in a skeletal state.

“The white giraffe made headlines in 2017 after its discovery, with its unique white hide. It is white but not albino, because of a condition known as leucism. Unlike albinism, animals with leucism continue to produce dark pigment in their soft tissue, thus her eyes were dark in colour,” the statement said.

According to IUCN, the four principal factors that have led to a population decline among giraffes are habitat loss, civil unrest, poaching and ecological issues.

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According to the Hirola Conservation Programme, in Garissa County, the emergence of farms along the river Tana have blocked giraffe water points, because of which they have to force their way to the river through farms.

In order to keep the giraffes away from the farms and to prevent them from destroying crops, farmers use snares and pitfall traps.

What causes the rare white giraffe to be white?

In a 2017 update, the Hirola Conservation Programme said that the very first reports of a white giraffe in the wild came in January 2016 in the Tarangire National Park, Tanzania. A second sighting was reported in March 2016 in Ishaqbini conservancy in Garissa county, Kenya.

The condition leucism, which leads to the white colour of these giraffes, is different from albinism, because of which animals lack melanin throughout their body. Leucism, on the other hand, is partial and leads to pale or patchy colouration of the skin, hair, feathers, scales or cuticles, but not the eyes, according to the Corvid Isle blog.

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Essentially, unlike albino animals, leucistic animals retain some essence of their normal pigmentation.

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