Adult Albino Elephants - What to Expect for Khanyisa as She Grows Up
It is no hallucination, pink elephants exist, but mostly when they are young calves.
As the first albino orphan that we have ever cared for, little Khanyisa is teaching us many things about her special kind. Albino elephants are extremely rare and are known to suffer many complications in the wild as a result of their lack of pigments - such as their eyes' and skin's severe sun sensitivity and the risk of being rejected by their own species because of their unusual appearance.
Albinism causes poor eyesight that could, in severe cases, eventually lead to blindness, something common in albino animals. And yet... we are constantly amazed that in spite of this, there have been sightings of older albino elephants surviving perfectly well in the wild, with other elephants.
In our own wilderness in the Kapama Reserve, we have a 10-year-old albino elephant that remains in excellent condition and is still part of her same close-knit herd of elephants. She was first seen in 2010, shortly after she was born, as a pink-skinned baby elephant that surprised us all! Little did we know that ten years later we would be rehabilitating a rescued pink albino elephant calf in our own orphanage.
This 10-year-old albino is now approximately only one to two shades lighter than other elephants her age. This is because, as the albino animal ages, its skin darkens and acquires greater resistance - contrary to humans with albinism.
"The albino elephant will always retain the pink hue," says Juan Ferreira, our Senior Curator, "especially in the creases of the skin, under the trunk and tail, as well as the toenails. As for the eyes, though, they don't change and retain their blue-white shade. As the elephant's skin darkens, the eyes stand out even more."
The adult albino elephant on Kapama recently gave birth to a calf which showed no signs of albinism and is doing extremely well.
These eyes remain forever sensitive to the light of the sun, as there is no pigment and with nothing to reflect the sunlight, it all gets absorbed.
You will have seen us holding an umbrella over Khanyisa's eyes and little body on sunny days outside, to protect her from the harsh African sun's rays. The wild may not have umbrellas or sunglasses, but it does have its own creative technique to shield albino elephants. These animals learn from young to stand under their mother, in the shade of the shadow that her big body casts.
Naturally, elephant calves like to stand under the mother's belly for up to a year, until they can't fit. Add the shade of the other allomothers and herd members and you have the best umbrella you could ask for. Young elephants will do this until their skin "comes of colour" and darkens, becoming more resistant to the sun. "Thereafter they will lead a normal lifestyle like the rest of their herd," says Juan.
Another lesson little albinos will pick up in the wild are the benefits of taking dust or mud baths to help protect their skin - a lesson and skill that their herd will teach them. We are certain that Khanyisa will learn these same lessons from her future family - the Jabulani herd. She is already picking up new tricks and wisdom about herself and the world around her from these elders. Our HERD carers and Adine assist her learning while at the orphanage, and have, since the beginning, tried to get her used to and comfortable with sand baths, throwing handfuls of sand onto her little body while she rolls or sleeps on the ground - an activity she is very fond of!
The sand and mud act as a sort of sunscreen - without the chemicals of regular human sunscreen nor its pore-blocking nature.
Thus far in Khanyisa's phased integration into the Jabulani herd, the other elephants have welcomed her lovingly, and are spending more and more time together with her. She has bonded beautifully with her proposed future mother, Lundi, who has really taken Khanyisa under her wing (trunk) and shown her motherly protective instincts at caring for the calf.
These are all signs that the herd should accept Khanyisa as one of their own, as they have done with each other, being orphans themselves, and with two other orphans introduced into their family - Timisa and Kumbura. Rather than rejecting her for her unusual appearance, they are just as unprejudiced as we expected them to be.
Khanyisa's future is all the brighter, with a herd of her own to continue to teach and rear her. The herd's role in helping her to thrive, in spite of her condition as an albino, is vital.
So what can we expect for Khanyisa as a growing albino elephant?
An increasingly darker and more resistant skin with pink patches, eyes that remain sensitive to light, dust baths and elephant shadows, but also a sense of belonging and family, protection and comfort, new lessons and support in numbers. A life just like other elephants without her condition... but a name, Khanyisa, meaning Light or Sunshine (so named for her light skin), that will always remind us of the odds that she continues to overcome and shine on through.
We are so grateful to the kind hearts that donate toward the vital work of HERD, South Africa’s first dedicated elephant orphanage, helping us to save, rehabilitate and rewild orphaned elephants.