A family of three extraordinarily rare white giraffes drew widespread attention and captivated animal lovers around the world after their discovery in Kenya.
Authorities have since announced two of the giraffes – the mother and her 7-month-old calf – are dead, probably by poachers and underscoring the difficulty of conservation amid persistent poaching.
The deaths left only one of white giraffe remaining in the country: a bull born in 2017.
Mohammed Ahmednoor, the manager of the Ishaqbini Hirola Community Conservancy, where the giraffes were free-ranging, said in a statement Tuesday the animals had been found “in a skeletal state.”
“This is a very sad day for the community of Ijara and Kenya as a whole,” he said. “We are the only community in the world who are custodians of the white giraffe. 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 Kenya Wildlife Services, which is investigating the deaths, said its teams had seen bones believed to be those of the two giraffes and estimated that they were 4 months old.
Villagers alerted the Hirola conservancy to the presence of the giraffes in the spring of 2017 after spotting the two walking together near the Hirola conservancy. Conservancy employees hurried to the site, where they found the pair “right in front of us.”
“The mother kept pacing back and forth a few yards in front of us while signaling the baby Giraffe to hide behind the bushes – a characteristic of most wildlife mothers in the wild to prevent the predation of their young,” the group wrote in an exuberant blog post.
They published footage of the encounter, which racked up hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube. With their unique hides, the animals soon made international headlines.
White giraffe sightings are rare, though they have been reported as far back as 1938, wildlife biologist Zoe Muller wrote in the African Journal of Ecology. When the mother and calf were discovered, the Hirola conservancy said it was aware of just two previous confirmed sightings, as The Washington Post reported at the time.
Their coloring appeared to be leucistic, rather than albino. Leucism causes a partial lack of pigmentation but generally does not affect an animal’s eye color.
“These rare snow white giraffes shocked many locals including myself but these gave us renewed energy to protect and save our unique wildlife,” Hirola Conservation Program Director Abdullahi Ali said in the organization’s blog post. He added, “We pledge to protect these beauties and their vital habitat.”
Last year, officials had more good news when the female giraffe gave birth to her second calf. The family of three became a tourist draw for the area, officials said.
Kenya Wildlife Services said conservancy management alerted them of the missing giraffe and calf after not seeing them for some time. The agency said it was working with community rangers and the conservancy to establish what led to the deaths of the two giraffes.
The loss came as the world’s giraffe population has fallen precipitously. Considered “vulnerable” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, there are about 97,000 of them in the wild, and their numbers have declined an estimated 40% in the past 30 years. Last year, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service announced it was considering adding giraffes to the endangered species list.
Poaching is part of the problem, with the animals prized for their tails, meat and hide, according to the African Wildlife Foundation.
Ahmednoor, the conservancy manager, described the deaths of the animals as a major blow.
“This is a long-term loss given that genetics studies and research which were significant investment into the area by researchers has now gone down the drain,” he said.