The animal was a local legend among the people living in a protected area of southeastern Brazil's Atlantic rain forest. They reported sightings of a pure-white tapir, a piglike animal that's usually dark brown, roaming the area.
Such tales piqued the interest of National Geographic contributing photographer Luciano Candisani, who wanted to capture the ghostly beast on film. (Also see "New Tapir Discovered—One of Biggest Mammals Found This Century.")
So, in May 2014, Candisani traveled to one of the odd tapir's reported hangouts in the Votorantim Reserve and waited for the nocturnal animal under the cover of darkness. Many tapirs came by, but no white ones. Undeterred, the photographer set up a camera trap, which takes a picture whenever something passes in front of it.
"My heart skipped a beat when, while reviewing the photos from one night, the white tapir suddenly appeared in one of the frames," says Candisani.
It's the first known photo taken of an albino lowland tapir (Tapirus terrestris) in the wild.
Tapirs in Trouble
Albinism occurs when an animal is born with a naturally occurring, but rare, genetic mutation. True albinos, like this tapir, lack all pigments and have white fur and reddish-pink eyes. (Related: "Pictures: Special Albinos and Unusually White Animals.")
Albino tapirs are very rare in their South American rain forest habitat. Tapirs, which grow up to 6 feet (1.8 meters) long and weigh 550 pounds (225 kilograms), are the biggest Brazilian land mammals—even bigger than the jaguar.
Watch a video of a related species, the Baird tapir.
The shy, solitary herbivores are also known for their flexible, trunk-like snouts, which are able to grip leaves and fruits on high branches. Tapirs even use their long snouts as snorkels while swimming—they're strong swimmers and often take to the water to cool off or escape predators.
But they haven't been able to outrun threats such as hunting and deforestation, which have dwindled the populations of all four living tapir species, including the Malayan tapir of Southeast Asia. In Brazil, 85 percent of the Atlantic rain forest has been destroyed, according to the Nature Conservancy.
Tapirs are crucial in the forest ecosystem—as they move through the area, they deposit seeds in their droppings.
Candisani said he feels lucky to have photographed such a rare and elusive animal.
Since photographing the albino tapir, Candisani has set up more camera traps in the area and captured images of other little-seen South American creatures, such the bush dog. (Also see "Mysterious Bush Dogs to Be Bred: Behind the Elusive Species.")
"The threatened Atlantic Forest," he says, "can still hold many surprises for science."
The story about the albino tapir appeared in the April issue of National Geographic Brazil.