The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

People built a whole island to protect the rarest of rare creatures — an albino orangutan

Alba, the only known albino orangutan in the world, will soon live on a man-made island created to keep her safe. (Courtesy of the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation)

Alba is one of the rarest creatures on earth: She’s the only known albino member of a dwindling population of Borneo orangutans. Her snowy fur and inquisitive pale eyes make her an otherworldly anomaly — and such a target that humans are taking unprecedented measures to keep her safe.

To protect her from poachers who might illegally sell her as a one-of-a-kind pet, the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation has spent $80,000 to create a man-made island off Indonesia where Alba will reside for the rest of her life. The sanctuary, where Alba will live with three other orangutans starting in June, will be patrolled by security guards around the clock.

Many zoos have attracted crowds by keeping rare white animals, including Snowflake the gorilla at the Barcelona Zoo and Onya-Birri, an albino koala, at the San Diego Zoo. But these creatures’ uniqueness can serve as a far more dangerous draw in the wild, where they stand out from their herds and environments. That makes them easy targets for predators — and, all too often, for people seeking peculiar pets or the ultimate trophy.

To protect albino and other white wildlife, organizations and governments around the world have passed laws, built sanctuaries and incorporated the animals into ecotourism projects. Some efforts shield the animals from hunters and poachers; others try to keep overeager visitors at bay.

“She’s very, very unique, and her price would be very high,” Jamartin Sihite, chief executive of the BOS Foundation, in West Java, Indonesia, said of Alba. “That’s why we need to protect her.”

Albino animals lack pigmentation because of a genetic mutation and therefore have white hair and pink eyes, noses and skin. A genetic mutation known as leucism causes a partial lack of pigmentation, usually in just the skin and hair. Leucistic animals have brown eyes and normal pigmentation in their noses, and they may not be completely white.

The allure of these distinctive creatures has led to deliberate inbreeding of certain species. White tigers, for example, are prized by zoos and Las Vegas entertainers but are not a naturally occurring subspecies. Instead, they are the result of breeding Bengal tigers that carry a rare recessive gene, and they do not have albinism.

Wild-caught white animals can be lucrative for poachers, who typically sell them for their hide or for use in traditional medicine. But Alba, her protectors say, would be a highly desirable prize in the illegal trade of orangutans as pets in the Middle East and Asia.

The foundation and the Central Kalimantan Natural Resource Conservation Agency took in Alba in April 2017, after part of the forest where she lived was cut down for farming. Sihite said officials determined that relocating her to a private sanctuary would be the best way to protect her in a natural setting. For the time being, she is living at a rehabilitation center run by the foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to the conservation of the Bornean orangutan and its habitat.

Her future home is an island within an island. The 25-acre forested area is surrounded by a canal that will serve as a moat-like barrier between Alba and her peers and the rest of the island, whose name the BOS Foundation is not disclosing. Staff will collect behavior and health data on the orangutans, provide daily supplemental feedings and maintain security.

Two other females and one male will join Alba, which means the albino orangutan could become a mother on the island. But the secluded arrangement is mostly intended as a safe and relatively natural habitat where Alba, who might live to be 50, can spend the rest of her days climbing trees and eating fruit, Sihite said.

Such a sanctuary wasn’t a possibility for Migaloo, a white humpback whale that has been making appearances off eastern Australia for decades. So that nation’s government passed laws to protect him instead.

Thousands of whale watchers seek out Migaloo each year, and in 2003, a boat struck and injured him, leaving scars on his back. The incident prompted Australia to carve out extra protections for humpback whales that are more than 90 percent white — which, as far as anyone knows, is a category that includes just Migaloo and one other humpback. These whales are designated “special management marine mammals,” and boats must stay at least 500 meters, or about 1,640 feet, away from them; aircraft cannot get closer than 2,000 feet.

“These laws are necessary because people are so anxious to see Migaloo that they act irresponsibly,” said Stephanie Stack, a senior research biologist at the Hawaii-based Pacific Whale Foundation, which tracks Migaloo and photos of the elusive marine celebrity on a website it created for him.

In Africa, a recently discovered white giraffe named Omo is serving as both a symbol of the plight of her species and the risks of being an outlier.

Habitat loss and poaching have made giraffes “vulnerable” to extinction, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Derek E. Lee, a wildlife biologist and co-founder of the Wild Nature Institute, said only about 1 in 20,000 giraffes are leucistic. East Africa seems to be a hotspot for them, with at least three sightings of white giraffes reported in the region recently, he said.

While poachers would have no added incentive to kill a white giraffe for its meat, Omo’s coloration makes her a more visible target, said Lee, who spotted her in 2015 while conducting a demographic survey of Masai giraffes in northern Tanzania. Fortunately, she lives in an area that’s under the protection of three authorities that prohibit poaching — Tarangire National Park, Burunge Wildlife Management Area, and property leased by a photography tourism company. The authorities don’t track Omo, but Lee said locals and visitors alike keep an eye out for her.

“She’s definitely a big attraction,” he said. “She’s sort of a celebrity animal. Anything unusual and beautiful will draw people.”

So enticing is the possibility of a rare, pale trophy that several U.S. states prohibit the hunting of white deer. New York, which doesn’t have a statewide ban, is home to a preserve hosting what’s believed to be the largest herd of leucistic whitetail deer in the world.

Inside Deer Haven Park, a fenced former Army depot, the leucistic deer live among conventionally hued peers and are safe from hunters. About 75 of the hundreds of deer in the park are leucistic, said Dennis Money, president of Seneca White Deer. On a good day, visitors might see three to 10 white deer.

“We have white deer in other parts of the state,” he said. “But nowhere do you have a population like we have.”

Not all white animals live on the edge. White squirrels, for example, are thriving in a handful of North American towns that embrace them as mascots.

In Kenton, Tenn., legend has it that gypsies passing through town gifted a pair of white squirrels to a farmer in the late 1800s. The town now has “well over 1,000” albino and leucistic squirrels among its large population of grays, according to Mayor Danny Jowers. The animals are featured on the police department uniform patch and celebrated each July at the annual White Squirrel Festival. Kenton also created a white squirrel “haven,” complete with feeders and breeding boxes, and posts signs to slow traffic in popular squirrel areas.

An ordinance passed in 1995 prohibits removing or injuring white squirrels, and it seems to be working.

“We’ve never had to prosecute anyone,” Jowers said.

Ultimately, whether measures are taken to safeguard a group of rare white animals or one special individual, the entire species can benefit, said Sihite, the chief executive of the foundation that is caring for Alba, the albino orangutan.

“Alba is unique, but she is an ambassador for all orangutans in the wild,” he said. “When we protect Alba, we need people to know that we would do the same thing for another orangutan.”

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