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Kenyan white giraffes killed by poachers in latest confirmation that humans suck

 
On Tuesday March 10 the Ishaqbini-Hirola Community Conservancy of Garissa county in eastern Kenya posted the sad news that two of their three white giraffes had been found dead.

The bodies were in a largely skeletal state but it was possible to determine that the animals had been shot by poachers, rather than dying from natural causes or predators. They had been dead for three or four months.

The mother was first discovered in 2017 and bore a male calf that year, also white but with ghostly outlines of the usual mottled spots. In summer 2019 she had a female calf and for a brief time the family of three white giraffes stuck together, delighting tourists. Only the baby calf was found dead with the mother.

Large scale floods in November and December, after a couple years of drought conditions, made it difficult for the conservancy’s rangers to patrol, and caused most of the distinctive game (the conservancy was founded to protect the hirola, a unique species of antelope) to move well away from their usual ranges. In January and February patrols were interrupted by an infiltration of militias from Somalia believed to be affiliated with al-Shabaab, a group which has carried out some savage terrorist attacks in Garissa, and it was not wished to expose the rangers to attack or hostage-taking. Because of these delays it is unlikely that the exact circumstances of the poaching can be determined.

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Biologists distinguish genetic traits causing pale white skin as albinisms (from Latin for white) if the body’s melanin production completely fails, or leucisms (from Greek for white) if melanin is selectively suppressed. The giraffes were a case of leucism, since their eyes were dark. In human albinos the eyes can be green (a tint not dependent on melanin) but not brown: commonly they are pink (from hemoglobin in the blood as the only colored substance) and the vision is subject to damage in bright light. The nearest thing to a leucism in humans is a poorly-understood condition called vitiligo, in which melanin production shuts down in irregular patches later in life; occasionally pigmentation fades all over the skin, most famously in the cases of Andrew Warhol and Michael Jackson. But while there is a genetic predisposition to vitiligo, the onset is some kind of autoimmune disorder of unknown trigger.

Leucisms are found in many species of ungulate (hoofed mammal), but typically the white is part of a disruptive camouflaging pattern. The old conundrum “Is a zebra a black horse with white stripes or a white horse with black stripes?” does have an answer: it is a black horse with white stripes, as seen most clearly in the subspecies called quagga, mostly dark brown with white stripes only on the forequarters. The quagga went extinct in 1883 but has been revived through selective breeding.

The striped pattern of the zebra confuses not only large cats but even flies, which have difficulty landing on a zebra.

Many breeds of cow, such as the Holstein, are largely white but with mottled patches of color in a less dramatic version of the zebra’s camouflage. Piebald moose are sometimes seen in Sweden and Canada, and in extreme cases nearly the entire body is white with only tiny flecks of brown.

These are called “spirit moose” by the Cree and considered a very lucky omen. Among the Lakota and other Plains tribes, the birth of a white buffalo was believed to signal the start of a new cycle. According to legend, the White Buffalo Calf Woman brought many sacred teachings and dances, and transformed into a buffalo calf which turned black, yellow, brown and finally white before disappearing. In 1833 Josiah Gregg recorded a solemn sacrificial ritual when the Cheyenne killed a white buffalo during the Leonid meteor shower in order to dedicate its hide to writing in white man’s letters and pictograms a treaty of trade and friendship.

In 1994 a white buffalo calf was born for the first time since 1933 and named Miracle: she went through multiple colorations as she grew, reminiscent of the legend, and appeared to receive social deference from other members of the herd. Unfortunately Miracle died at the age of ten, but others have been born among Miracle’s relatives and a herd of white buffalo, now 17 in number, is being bred by the Sacred World Peace Alliance. It was at one point suspected that they might be “beefalo” who acquired leucism genes through some interbreeding with domestic cattle, but DNA testing has confirmed that their genome is purely from the American bison species.

Unfortunately African beliefs about such things have taken an uglier turn. Human albinos are called zeru zeru from a word for “ghost” out of a belief that they can contact spirits of the dead. In past times they were both valued and feared. But in recent decades a superstition has taken root that body parts from albinos confer magic powers, and there have been a disturbing number of ritual murders and dismemberments of albinos in Tanzania and neighboring countries.

A white giraffe was discovered in 2015 in Tanzania’s Tarangire National Park and named Omo after a local brand of detergent (the Kenyan white giraffes were not given names). But after January 2016, Omo has apparently not been seen again, and it was feared that Omo had been especially targeted by poachers who could sell the meat and the hide at high prices, taking advantage of superstitious beliefs in talismanic powers.

Did something similar happen to the Kenyan white giraffes? That is possible, but there are other theories. Perhaps the armed Somalis entered Kenya earlier than was thought, and simply killed them because they were easily spotted and a good source of food: an area of Somalia east of Garissa county, Kenya, is classed by USAID as in an “Emergency” state of food insufficiency on account of the locust swarms this year.

But aside from simple desperation, a common motive has been trophy-seeking, whether or not connected with supernatural beliefs, and some angry posters to the Conservancy’s Facebook page suggested that the rangers must have been bribed by the hunters, or else why would such special animals not have been under constant surveillance? The rangers, stung and hurt by such accusations, have patiently explained the difficulties which hampered their work in the past few months.

The male white calf, we are told, is still alive. The Conservancy of course is giving no hint as to his whereabouts.

 
Robert Eckert is a longtime member of the Underground Bunker community and author of the historical novel The Year of Five Emperors.

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