Kenya's only female white giraffe and her calf have been killed by poachers, conservationists said Tuesday, in a major blow for the rare animals.
The bodies of the two giraffes were found "in a skeletal state after being killed by armed poachers" in Garissa in eastern Kenya, the Ishaqbini Hirola Community Conservancy said in a statement.
Their deaths leave just one remaining white giraffe alive in Kenya a lone male, borne by the same slaughtered female, the conservancy said.
"We are the only community in the world who are custodians of the white giraffe," said Mohammed Ahmednoor, the manager of the conservancy.
"Its killing is a blow to tremendous steps taken by the community to conserve rare and unique species and a wakeup call for continued support to conservation efforts."
The older giraffe’s alabaster colouring made her famous in 2017 when she was first spotted on the conservancy and again when she birthed two calves, the latest in August last year.
Their pale colouring is not caused by albinism, but by a condition called Leucism, in which animals have a partial loss of pigmentation. This can result in an entirely white or patchy creature and is different from albinism because the animal’s eyes are unaffected.
The demise of the mother and calf will not be the end of white giraffes, though.
"Leucism is not well understood, but white individuals can be born to normally coloured giraffes, like Omo the leucistic giraffe in Tarangire, Tanzania, Derek Lee Principal Scientist and Founder of Wild Nature Institute, and Associate Research Professor at Penn State University told The National.
Omo became famous in 2016 after Dr Lee discovered her and news outlets scrambled to publish photos her. Her fame, and that of the slaughtered Kenyan giraffes, is due to the rarity of their condition.
“Omo is the only leucistic giraffe known out of 23,000 Masai giraffes in Tanzania, Dr Lee said.
“Before last week there were three white giraffes out of 11,000 Reticulated Giraffes in Kenya.”
Moving forward from the devastating loss will be difficult, but a silver lining could be found in raising awareness of the plight all giraffes face.
The Africa Wildlife Foundation reports up to 40 per cent of Africa’s giraffe population has been poached for their skin and meat in the last 30 years.
“Giraffes are killed nearly every day, but in this time when the world is gripped by a disease that likely jumped from bushmeat markets, I hope the loss of these celebrity white giraffes will draw attention to the problem of wildlife trafficking,” said Dr Lee.
“Both coronavirus and giraffe killings were ultimately caused by wildlife trafficking.”
The flu-like virus, dubbed Covid-19 by scientists, is thought to have originated in a market selling wild animals in Wuhan, China. Last week, Chinese authorities banned the consumption and farming of wild animals in response to the crisis.
Local populations need to be given a financial incentive to prevent poaching, a method which has worked in Tanzania said Dr Lee.
“Community-based natural resource management like Tanzania's Wildlife Management Areas protect wildlife because locals get direct benefits,” he said.
“Financing the payment of locals who protect their natural resources for the global good is a growing model of nature conservation that rewards communities thriving with wildlife.”