Using a motion-activated camera, scientists at Wolong National Nature Reserve in southwest China have snapped a blurry but unprecedented photograph of the world’s first known albino giant panda.
The all-white giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) was photographed in April as it was roaming through a bamboo forest at an altitude of 2,000 meters, according to a press release issued by the local conservation authority. The park in which the panda was observed, Wolong National Nature Reserve, is located in the southwest Chinese province of Sichuan.
An expert from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and Peking University School of Life Sciences confirmed the animal as being an albino individual. The photograph shows a giant panda with white fur and claws, and with pinkish-red eyes—the hallmarks of albinism. Judging by the photo, the panda is somewhere between one to two years of age, but its sex could not be determined.
Albinism is a genetic condition that disrupts normal production of the melanin pigment. Aside from a sensitivity to sunlight, albinism doesn’t directly affect normal body structure or physiological health. And indeed, this particular individual appears to be robust and healthy. This specimen may be at a disadvantage, however, owing to its bright, conspicuous appearance.
Now, while this albino giant panda may be more visible to predators, its appearance may actually make it more vulnerable to humans. Back in 2017, for example, a conservation group had to rescue a rare albino orangutan from curious villagers on the Indonesian part of Borneo island.
The stunning all-white animal was rehabilitated and released back in the wild the following year. Fingers are crossed that something similar doesn’t happen to this individual.
Because albinism is a hereditary condition—it comes from a recessive gene—there’s “a ‘whitening’ mutant gene in the giant panda population in Wolong,” as noted in the Sichuan press release. As the Wolong conservationists pointed out, should this panda grow to maturity and mate with another albino with the same mutated gene, it could result in yet another albino giant panda, or further propagation of the albino gene at the very least.
The conservationists are planning to step up their monitoring of the area to learn more about this possibility, and to study other animals in the region.
This fortuitous photo is part of a larger project to study the ecology of the region. Chinese conservationists are currently monitoring seven large plots, each about 20 square kilometres in size. These plots are being monitored by a series of motion-activated cameras. Giant pandas are notoriously difficult to study, as they’re solitary creatures that live in remote mountainous areas.
Giant pandas are currently listed as vulnerable, and less than 1,000 mature giant pandas exist in the wild, as per the IUCN Red List.