A villager in Kenya was herding animals one day recently when he came upon a head-turning sight. A ghostly creature with a mighty long neck was grazing off in the distance.
Upon closer inspection, the vision was revealed to be a female reticulated giraffe — tall, majestic and preternaturally white — and she was accompanied by a smaller apparition: a pale baby giraffe.
The sightings in June, in Garissa County near the Ishaqbini Hirola Conservancy, sent the villager scurrying off to tell rangers,the founder of the Hirola Conservation Program said on Thursday. The news has been ricocheting across continents and making headlines ever since.
Conservationists who hurried to the site managed to capture what is believed to be the first known video footage of white giraffes, said Abdullahi H. Ali, who founded Hirola and has been working to conserve the critically endangered hirola antelope in the eastern part of the country.
“We spent almost 20 minutes with the beautiful animals and had the pleasure of getting close-up photos and video of the duo,” he said by email. “To our surprise, one normal color reticulated giraffe also was among the mother and calf. You can actually compare the difference.”
Hirola said on its website: “They were so close and extremely calm and seemed not disturbed by our presence. The mother kept pacing back and forth a few yards in front of us while signaling the baby giraffe to hide behind the bushes.”
The white giraffes displayed the characteristics of a genetic condition known as leucism, which inhibits pigmentation in skin cells, Dr. Ali said. The condition occurs across the animal kingdom. Birds, lions, fish, peacocks, penguins, eagles, hippos, moose and snakes have all displayed the trait.
Leucism is not albinism, however: Animals with albinism produce no melanin throughout their entire bodies. Animals with leucism may have darker pigment in their soft tissue, and their eyes retain a normal color. The eyes of animals with albinism are usually red.
The baby giraffe, Hirola said, was not totally white, but its tinges of color seemed to be “fading away, leaving the baby white as it approaches adulthood.”
It was unclear if, under the hot African sun, the giraffes’ skin was vulnerable to damage, Dr. Ali said. The rangers did not get close enough to examine the mother and baby, but he added: “I think they will be O.K. They seemed to be in excellent shape.”
The communities in the area were “excited” about the rare sightings of leucistic giraffes, Dr. Ali said, and they were banding together to protect them.