In 2017, a female and baby giraffe were sighted near the Ishaqbini Hirola Conservancy in Kenya, their fur as white as snow. The mother gave birth to a second white-colored calf last year, fuelling public fascination with these rare, spot-less creatures. But now, according to Abdi Latif Dahir and Neil Vigdor of the New York Times, tragedy has struck: the female and her seven-month-old calf are dead, reportedly killed by poachers.
Writing on Twitter, the Kenya Wildlife Service said that it began investigating the fates of the giraffes after the Ishaqbini Hirola Conservancy reached out to say that the female and her second baby had not been seen for a period of time. Teams on the ground identified bones that they believe belong to the missing giraffes. The remains appear to be four months old. The mother giraffe’s first offspring, a bull, is still alive, the Times reports.
“This is a very sad day for the community of Ijara and Kenya as a whole,” said Mohammed Ahmednoor, manager of the Ishaqbini Hirola Conservancy, which confirmed the deaths in a statement. “We are the only community in the world who are custodians of the white giraffe.”
The animals’ unique white appearance was due to leucism, a condition that causes partial loss of pigmentation. Unlike animals with albinism, animals with leucism may continue to produce dark pigments in the soft tissues and eyes—hence the mother giraffe and her calves had dark eyes and dark tail hair, according to Live Science’s Brandon Specktor. The condition is rare among giraffes; in addition to the trio in Kenya, only one other white giraffe has been observed in Tanzania’s Tarangire National Park.
Though the deaths of Kenya’s white giraffes have made international headlines, their fate, sadly, is not an unusual one. Poaching is a major threat to reticulated giraffes, the endangered subspecies to which the white animals belong. Less than 16,000 of these gangly creatures are thought to be alive today.
Across Africa, in fact, giraffes are in trouble. Between 1985 and 2015, their numbers plummeted 40 percent to less than 100,000 individuals. In addition to poaching—the animals are valued for their meat and pelts—habitat loss, ecological changes and human conflict put these towering ungulates at risk.
In recent years, due to “improved community and private land conservation,” reticulated giraffe numbers in Kenya appear to be increasing, according to the Giraffe Conservation Foundation. But the loss of two out of three rare white giraffes was “a blow to the tremendous steps taken by the community to conserve rare and unique species,” Ahmednoor said, “and a wake-up call for continued support to conservation efforts.”