The White Giraffe of Ishaqbini

Last month, the population of the world's most endangered antelope in the Ishaqbini Community Sanctuary reached a remarkable 100 individuals. This is up from just 48 in 2012, when the Sanctuary was first established by the Somali Abdallah group that live in the area. But the hirola is not the only unique species living in Ishaqbini. 

In February 2016, camel herders reported seeing a white giraffe while out grazing. "The Somali Abdullah herders live their lives peacefully, few or none of them are involved in the conflict that hits the news in the regions further north. They live side by side with the wildlife and have a strong conservation ethic that has resulted in livestock and wildlife peacefully co-existing in Ishaqbini and its surrounds" wrote Jamie Manuel, who helps train rangers and assists in conservation activities across all 33 NRT conservancies. 

NRT's research and monitoring team were in the conservancy at the time, and ventured out with Ishaqbini rangers to see if this was true. The mysterious creature alluded them on the ground for days, leading many of the team to speculate if it was perhaps just a rumour. On the last day of the hirola count, they spotted it; a completely white adult reticulated giraffe browsing with a regular herd. Regional Coordinator for NRT-Coast, Yassin Mohammed, snapped a grainy picture of the giraffe with his phone, and that was the last they saw of it. 

A few weeks ago in late March, Jamie joined the Ishaqbini rangers to find the elusive giraffe once again. Road and communication networks are challenging here, and the team relied on help from community herders. 

"We started in the area bordering the top end of the Boni Forest" said Jamie. "It is a vast expanse of thorny scrub and mbambakofi woodland. Word was sent out that we were on the trail of the white giraffe and slowly herders sent word back of the general area it had last been seen in."

"Morning searches turned up twittering pods of dwarf mongooses sunning themselves, while lilac breasted rollers called from thorny perches. Carmine bee eaters and batleur eagles lent colour to the blue canvas of the sky and, until the heat got up, lesser kudu, buffalo, zebra, topi and gerenuk browsed and grazed in peace. Crested francolin screeched intermittently and vulturine guinea fowl danced a badly rehearsed polka dance amongst the grasses." Jamie writes.

On the second day of searching, in a clearing in the forest, 20 reticulated giraffe peacefully browed the acacia trees. Among them, the white giraffe. The rangers were thrilled to get a closer look, and were pleased to see that the animal looked healthy and was feeding well. 

Leucism or albinism? 

Leucism is a condition where there is a partial loss of pigmentation resulting in white, pale or patchy colouration of skin, hair, feathers, cuticles or scales but not eyes. Unlike albinism it is caused by a reduction in multiple types of pigment, not just melanin. A giraffe with leucism was spotted in January in Tanzania and it would seem that this is the condition seen in the Ishaqbini giraffe.

Albinism on the other hand is a congenital disorder characterised by the complete or partial absence of pigment in the skin, hair and eyes due to absence or defect of tyrosinase, a copper-containing enzyme involved in the production of melanin. It is the opposite of melanism.