A rare sight greeted Odette Joubert as she sat down for breakfast one morning – a pink elephant. The small elephant, about a month old, came down to drink from the Crocodile River. Joubert first noticed its light colour while having breakfast at her house on the banks of the river near Hectorspruit. She was later able to take photographs of the calf when the herd reappeared.
Joubert said that the baby repeatedly rolled in the mud. It was accompanied by its mother and an older sibling, both of whom were very protective of the baby.
It is unclear whether the calf is a true albino or ‘white’ elephant, but may be what is known as a leucistic animal. A true albino has no protective skin pigment, melanin, and has unpigmented pink eyes and white skin with no markings. A leucistic animal is white, but has dark eyes, and can have some pigmentation, producing ‘ghost’ markings. White lions are an example of leucistic animals.
State vet Dr Roy Bengis, on seeing the photographs of the unusual elephant, said that its pale pink eyes and back ear skin suggested true albinism. However, he said that he had previously seen an older animal near Nwanetsi picnic site, which was slightly darker, which suggested leucism, where animals darken with age.
Another non-pigmented baby elephant was also seen in the 1980s in a capture boma. Both Dr Bengis and Johan Malan recall seeing this individual. Elephants with non-pigmented patches of skin, often behind their ears, are sometimes seen but true albino animals are very rare. The harsh sun makes survival a struggle for non-pigmented animals.