Kenya had three rare all-white giraffes. Two of them have been killed.
Wildlife officials announced in a statement Tuesday that a female and her seven-month-old were found “in a skeletal state after being killed by armed poachers” in a nature conservancy in Ijara, northeastern Kenya, likely four months ago. A third white giraffe, the young male offspring of the dead female, is believed still to be alive.
“This is a very sad day for the community of Ijara and Kenya as a whole,” said Mohammed Ahmednoor, the manager of the Ishaqbini Hirola Community Conservancy, in a statement.
The animals had been well-known since 2017, after rangers spotted them while on patrol in the conservancy and posted a video to YouTube, which subsequently went viral. Some viewers left comments at the time sharing prescient concerns that their newfound fame could put the giraffes at risk for poaching.
The tragedy highlights a paradox of how we navigate our connection with nature in the digital age: Social media allows people to experience the joy and wonder of the planet’s rarest creatures—a valuable connection amidst the extinction crisis—while simultaneously putting animals at increased risk. Rarity and exclusivity are among the driving factors of the illegal wildlife trade, so unusual animals are more likely to be targeted by poachers.
The comments section on the original video has now transformed into a tribute wall, as hundreds of people express sorrow as well as anger at the poachers—and at the role the viral video may have played in putting a target on the animals’ backs.
“Hauntingly beautiful. So much magic in this world,” reads one comment on the video from two years ago. Below it, a comment left this morning: “It’s so sad. I don’t understand. WHY?”
National Geographic was among a number of media outlets that reported on the rare giraffes in 2017. It’s delicate—navigating how to report on unique animals without helping to put a target on their backs. When we report on wildlife crime, we typically don’t disclose specific locations for that reason.
The giraffes likely had a genetic condition called leucism, which inhibits skin cells from producing pigment but allows other organs, like eyes, to be dark-colored. This differs slightly from albinism, which inhibits the body from producing pigment in all organs. Despite their inability to produce colorful pigments, giraffes and other animals with leucism don’t face genetic disadvantages to their survival.
The condition, while rare, is not unheard of. It was also spotted in a giraffe calf at Tanzania’s Tarangire National Park. Following the birth of a white giraffe in their refuge, the Park announced that it had taken steps to ensure the giraffe was safe from poachers. To date, Hirola had not announced any security measures.
Giraffes are under threat globally. Their populations have declined by more than 40 percent over the past three decades, to just under 16,000, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the global authority on the conservation status of wild animals and plants. Poaching of giraffes, which are killed for their hide, meat, bones, and tails, has increased across Africa. And as human populations grow and expand into former wildlands, giraffes have also fallen victim to retaliatory killings for crop damage, vehicle strikes, and hunting for bushmeat.