Wild animals who are albino — with partial or complete lack of pigment in their skin, fur and eyes — are not only unable to avoid the rays of the sun (especially those born in warmer climates). Their light coloring (the result of a congenital disorder from, in part, a deficiency or absence of an enzyme, tyrosinase, that is involved in producing melanin) exposes them to predators, greatly lowering their odds for survival. Many rare white animals are able to live in captivity, though, in zoos and wildlife preserves like the six below:
1) A White River Otter
4-month-old Haku’s name means “white” in Japanese; she lives at the (ironically named) Sunshine Aquarium in Tokyo in Japan. She also has a nickname, “fair-skinned beauty” and is currently cared for by keepers (as in the video below), who take her on a daily jaunt around the aquarium.
River otters are born with white fur but, after they reach adolescence at four months, their fur usually turns black. Haku’s has not and her keepers expects that she will remain white throughout her life. She joins the aquarium’s seven other river otters, an extinct species that was last seen in the wild in Japan more than 30 years ago.
2) Three White Kiwis
Last November, a third white kiwi chick hatched at Pukaha Mount Bruce, in the southern Tararua district of New Zealand. The new chick joins two other white kiwis, Manukura, who hatched in May of 2011 and Mauriora, who was born in December. All three white birds have the same father, who was one of 30 kiwi transferred to Pukaha Mount Bruce from Little Barrier Island in 2010.
As it is “very rare” that two North Island Brown Kiwis carry the recessive gene for white chicks, Mt Bruce wildlife center manager Kathy Houkamau notes that “we’re very blessed.”
The video shows the third white kiwi chick just after hatching!
3) Two White Wombats
The name “Polar” was given to a very rare white wombat found by shearers in 2011 near Ceduna in south Australia. At that point, wombat rescuer Val Salmon noted she had only seen one such albino animal in 40 years.
Then, a few weeks later in December, another white wombat was found by members of the local Aborigine community and brought to her. This second wombat has been named Icy; her mother had apparently been hit by a car and Icy had blisters, fleas and ticks.
Both Polar and Icy have been brought back to health and, as rescued wombats cannot be returned to the wild under South Australian law, will remain at Salmon’s center unless zoos or educational centers adopt them. As Salmon notes, “zoos and parks don’t want an animal unless they are perfect. For one of our other wombats, we have to grate all its food … as it can’t chew.” She hopes to raise funds to create a fauna park that can provide a permanent home for all the rescued animals she is caring for.
4) A White Buffalo
White buffalo (which are actually mere tannish in color) are extremely rare. There is only about a one in 10 million chance of one being born so their birth is celebrated as an auspicious event among Native Americans. White buffalos are considered symbols of unity, hope and rebirth.
One could be (like the newborn calf in Royal Gorge Park, Colorado in the video above) be taking its first steps, with nudging encouragement from its mother. Lone Star, a pregnant white buffalo who was recently moved to a downtown ranch in Dallas.
5) A White Lion
White lions are born to tawny parents who both carry a recessive gene. The birth of one in the wild is thought to occur only ever 20 to 30 years. A white female cub was born to parents Moto and Kya on January 26 in the U.K.’s Paradise Wild Park. She is not actually an albino but leucitic, with reduced pigmentation in her skin and regular-colored eyes.
As the park website says of white lions, “Regarded as god like entities in African folklore, it is believed their majestic coats serve as a representation of the good found in all creatures.” “Health, happiness and luck” are said to be the lot of anyone fortunate enough to be able to get a glance of a white lion.
6) Quadruplet White Tiger Cubs
Four cubs, each weighing only one to two pounds, were born to a white tiger in Austria’s Weisser Zoo on December 27. They have been named Mumbai, Maja, Melody and Mona Lisa and have been rapidly gaining weight.
While it’s certainly fascinating to see the Weisser Zoo’s four tiger cubs, some have raised concerns about efforts to breed them. White tigers are born to Bengal tiger parents who (like the parents of white lions) both have copies of a very rare recessive gene. In the 20th century, only a very few have been seen in the Bengal tibers’ habitat in India and South Asia, writes Jackson Landers on Slate. White tigers’ lack of camouflage would certainly threaten their existence in such a tropical ecosystem. In addition, some born in captivity are cross-eyed, have visual impairments and other serious defects.
The Association of Zoos and Aquariums has banned member zoos (pdf) from breeding of white tigers, lions, and cheetahs, though zoos that already had such animals are still allowed to display them. Zoos should rather use their funds to develop “legitimate breeding program to protect the genetic diversity of endangered subspecies of tigers,” as Landers notes.
Certainly white tigers, white lions and other white animals are beautiful. While making sure that existing white animals are properly cared for, should we not direct our efforts to preserving species that truly preserve the genetic diversity of endangered animals?
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Photos from Thinkstock except white wombat via Care2.com
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