[Update: This story has been updated at 3:40 PM, January 27.] Omo's getting a new name. For the next two weeks, readers can bid to rename her at www.wonname.com. Proceeds from the auction will go to conservation efforts in Tarangire National Park, channeled through nonprofits such as the Jane Goodall Institute.
At 15 months, Omo the giraffe has achieved a major hurdle: she's still alive.
Nearly half of all giraffe calves die in their first year, easy targets for lions and hyenas. But Omo is a rare white giraffe, which makes her a prize for poachers, too. She's been diagnosed with leucism, which means that many of her skin cells can't produce pigmentation, leaving much her torso and face a ghostly white – although paired with a shock of red mane, she's drawn comparisons to David Bowie.
Omo, who's named after a popular laundry detergent, lives at Tanzania's Tarangire National Park, where scientists say she's only the second giraffe with leucism they've seen in 20 years. The park is home to about 3,000 giraffes, where they're protected from poaching activity that some activists say is on the rise.
"We are thrilled that she is still alive and well," the Wild Nature Institute (WNI) wrote on their blog last week, after first posting pictures of Omo in April 2015.
At first, she looks albino. But whereas animals with albinism can't produce melanin, a single pigment, animals with leucism are lacking many more. Eyes are a quick clue: albinos' eyes are typically red, but leucistic animals' eyes keep their normal hue. Although it occurs in a number of species, individuals aren't always white; leucistic hippos, for instance, are a speckled pink.
Derek Lee, the WNI's founder, had worried that Omo's unusual coloring would make her a poaching target. Giraffes' durable hide is used in many traditional crafts, and the tourist souvenir market has contributed to a worsening poaching problem. The animals' calm and grace makes them easy hunting for bushmeat, too: their long limbs can be easily ensnared, and they don't tend to run immediately, according to the Rothschild's Giraffe Project, named after an endangered variety. For a single shot, accurate hunters can bring in a huge amount of meat.
In some areas, their numbers may be down by 40 percent. "Giraffes are the forgotten megafauna," Giraffe Conservation Foundation executive director Julian Fennessy told Take Part in 2014. "They're really not getting the attention they deserve."
Rumors that giraffes' brains and bone marrow could cure AIDS/HIV patients began circulating in Tanzania a decade ago, making the species' survival even more precarious. But Tanzanian giraffes may still have an advantage: they're national symbols, and killing one is illegal.
Dr. Lee and his wife, Monica, are studying how giraffes and humans can live together, doing regular observations in areas where the two frequently come in contact. They hope their conservation work will "give Omo and her relatives a better chance of survival," he told the Telegraph.
They're frequently asked how she gets along with other animals, too. The answer: very well.
"I think people love the fact that Omo the white giraffe was accepted by her more typically colored peers, because it speaks to the human aspiration of tolerance and acceptance of those who look different and are not normal," Lee told Philly.com.