When ecologist Dr. Derek Lee first spotted Omo, a snow-white, 15-month-old giraffe with a rare condition called leucism, he was concerned for her safety.
“The first year of life is very dangerous for wild giraffes because they are small enough to be killed and eaten by lions, hyenas, and leopards,” he says. “Only about 50% of calves born survive their first year.”
Omo’s condition also makes her more of a target for poachers – who can spot her more easily. Since being spotted, the giraffe has become a bit of an internet sensation. Lots or readers wondered if the herd had accepted her.
“I think people love the fact that Omo the white giraffe was accepted by her more typically colored peers, because it speaks to the human aspiration of tolerance and acceptance of those who look different and are not normal,” he says.
Omo lives in the Tarangire National Park, where Lee and his wife research giraffes. The duo founded the Wild Nature Institute and launched Project GIRAFFE in 2011.
Though she seems happy in her home, Lee says her survival is still not guaranteed. In fact, she’s in trouble. So are all giraffes.
The threat to giraffes
The situation is actually so bad, Lee says, that there are now four elephants for every one giraffe. Though they don’t often get the headline space that elephants garner, giraffes are actually a threatened species.
The Wild Nature Institute has launched one of the biggest giraffe demography projects in history. The institute has developed a computer program that identifies individual giraffes by their unique spot patterns. It enables the institute to document births, deaths and movements of more than 2,100 individual giraffes across roughly 1,500 square miles of land, which is stretched out among a patchwork of national parks, a cattle ranch, Masai livestock ranges and farms.
The pattern recognition technology they use is similar to that of fingerprinting or facial recognition software and, they say, allows them to study each giraffe without capturing or interfering with their lives in any way. What Lee has learned is that the number of giraffes in Africa has declined drastically over the past decade due to habitat loss and the market for bush meat.
Why no love?
According to Lee, giraffes are understudied, partly because of their slow movements.
“Giraffe behaviors play out over a longer time scale than most people’s attention spans, so people tend to gravitate towards elephants and lions when looking for an African species to study,” he says.
With his project, he’s hoping to fill in some blanks about the movements of a fragmented giraffe population, which he hopes will aid conservation efforts across the continent.
Omo, he says, could hopefully lend a hand to his efforts.
“We hope Omo’s popularity will raise global awareness for the problems facing giraffes,” he says.