George and Iris van Rensburg were enjoying their regular weekly visit to the Kruger National Park (KNP) on January 27, 2006 when they were “absolutely astounded” to spot a pink elephant slightly north of the Nwamanzi lookout near Olifants camp. At first sight, they though that the “pink blob” they were seeing in a herd of about 25 elephants was an impala, but closer inspection revealed it was a tiny pink elephant.
This is the second “white” elephant to be spotted in Kruger in recent times – almost exactly a year ago Odette Joubert saw another pink youngster drinking from the Crocodile River. According to Kruger’s elephant expert Dr Ian Whyte, he has only personally spotted one other non-pigmented elephant in his 35 years in Kruger, during one of the annual aerial elephant censuses in the 1980s. This was also a baby, smaller than the one spotted by the van Rensburgs.
Two other non-pigmented animals are also known from the 1980s and 90s – one a translocated elephant that was about two years old which had some pigmentation but was paler than normal, and another partially pigmented animal photographed near Tshokwane by a tourist.
While other cars pushed on past ignoring the rare sight, George and Iris sat and watched the little pink baby interacting with other herd members, capturing photos using the digital camera given to George for his 70th birthday. Iris says that it looked as though the mother might recently have returned to the herd, as the other cows were very intrigued with the youngster, “sniffing, lovingly rubbing it with their trunks.”
The pink baby was the smallest calf in the herd. Iris says that it seemed to be enjoying itself and was prancing around. “The little one looked so excited with life.” The mother appeared to also be in close contact with another young teenage elephant, possibly an older sibling of the baby.
With the large distance between Crocodile Bridge and Olifants Camp, Ian says that it is highly unlikely that the mothers of the two pale youngsters are closely related, as studies of elephant cows have shown that they live in relatively small home areas.
From study of the photo, Ian says that he thinks it is a true albino, as the tail hairs look very white. Animals which lack pigment may be either albinos or leucistic animals. Albinos have no pigment and pink eyes, while leucistic animals have dark eyes and may have some pigment, which produces ‘ghost’ markings.
Leucistic animals may darken with age, as is the case with white lions and leucistic buffalo. State vet Dr Roy Bengis remarks that the best way to tell an albino from a leucistic animal is by looking at the eyes, but that it is sometimes hard to see in the baby elephants as their eyelashes often obscure the true eye colour.
In leucistic elephants, which darken as they grow older, the area behind the ears often remains pink. Dr Bengis says that both leucistic and albino animals will suffer from the effects of the harsh African sun, but that albino animals will almost certainly not make it to adulthood. As well as suffering from skin problems, albinos are likely to go blind.
He adds that the recessive genes for nonpigmented elephants occur naturally in the elephant population and as the population grows more pale animals will be born. The growing number of tourists in Kruger also increases the chances of someone spotting a pink elephant, alcohol intake not withstanding.
As studies of elephant cows has shown that they live in relatively small home areas. He says that although very few pink elephants are seen, there are likely to have been more in the past. From study of the photo, Ian says that he thinks it is a true albino, as the tail hairs look very white.
Animals which lack pigment may be either albinos or leucistic animals. Albinos have no pigment and pink eyes, while leucistic animals have dark eyes and may have some pigment, which produces ‘ghost’ markings.
Leucistic animals may darken with age. The survival of these pale elephants is in question, as most of the sightings have been of calves less than a year old. The harsh sun is likely to cause them to suffer.