When ranger, Jess Boon, arrived back from morning game drive one day last week talking about a ‘blue-eyed’ elephant calf we all thought that she possibly needed to go on leave after her six week cycle as we could only assume that she was seeing things. With any unusual or great sighting at Londolozi, we all believe that there is no proof without a photo. So with no hesitation, Jess got her camera out to show us and true to her word, she had pictures of a half pink, half grey, blue-eyed elephant.
This truly intrigued me, as it did the entire Londolozi ranging team, so I decided to do some research. This was a much greater task than I originally thought, as there have been no more than a handful of these elephants recorded with this same ‘skin defect’. It is believed that these calves are partially albino. Various gene mutations that affect the production of normal pigmentation is called Albinism. Albinos that are fully white and have characteristic pink eyes due to the lack of melanin are referred to as true or amelanistic albinos. Albinos that are partial, also referred to as blue-eyed albinos, only have some residual pigmentation. There are various degrees of patchy albinism (piebaldism) due to localised mutations in skin cells.
In this instance, as well that the other recorded instances where this has happened, the calves are treated normally by their mothers and the rest of the herd. I am hoping that this will ensure that the calf makes it to adulthood, although, there have not been any records of adult elephants with this partial albinism. It is not known whether these calves grow out of it or whether they don’t survive to adulthood due to the sensitivity of their eyes and skin to the sun.
If anyone has any other ideas about what the cause of this might be, please let me know!
Photographed by Jess Boon
Written by Kate Neill