September 1

Genetic Defects & Anomalies in African Animals

September 1, 2010

African animals, like animals around the world, are sometimes born with genetic defects. These genetic anomalies and ‘surprises’ usually put these animals in the spotlight and sometimes, in danger. Here are some of the most common or surprising cases.


The most common and well-known of these is Albinism. Albinism is a congenital disorder caused by a defect or absence of an enzyme involved in producing melanin. So then, the animal’s skin, fur, eyes and nails do not have the usual pigmentation. In the purest form of Albinism, the animal will have pink or light eye colour and nails. If you spot an animal that is white, but it has dark eye colour, it’s a case of Leucism where there’s a partial loss of pigmentation.

Several African animals, such as elephants, giraffes, impalas, snakes and various birds have all been spotted in Africa in their albino form. Getting lucky on safari and being to capture them on camera is truly a magical moment.

In 2009, a BBC cameraman spotted a very rare Albino elephant calf in the Okavango Delta, Botswana and it’s was pinkish, reddish-brown in colour. Another sighting in 2016 at Kruger National Park caused a buzz too.

An albino elephant calf with her mother
A pink calf spotted at Kruger National Park
Image credit: Caters News Agency

The most famous ‘white’ animals in Africa is the white lion. However, white lions are not Albino, instead the white colour is caused by a recessive gene known as Leucism. It’s easy to distinguish because they have “eyeliner” eyes and black around their mouth and nose.

At one point, the Timbavati Game Reserve was well-known for having a small population of white lions, and these are thought to be the forefathers of almost all white lions in the world. For the most part, they can only be found in Zoos and private collections, although at Sanbona Wildlife Reserve on the Garden Route, there is a free roaming pride of white lions. Currently, rumours of white lion cubs being born in the Timbavati is going around…

A close-up of a while lioness with blue eyes
A white lioness at Timbavati


The complete opposite of Albinism is Melanism, which occurs when there’s an increased production of melanin. So then, they tend to be darker or even completely black in colour, compared to other animals of the same species.

In Africa, black leopards have been spotted and even black impala do occur. In fact, at Botlierskop Private Game Reserve in South Africa, there is a herd of over 150 black impalas! And in the Aberdare Mountains of Kenya there exists a population of black serval cats, where their colouring is thought to help them gain more heat from the sun in the colder weather of the mountains.

A melanistic leopard in South Africa
A black leopard spotted in Mpumalanga, South Africa
Image credit: Steelburger News

The Survival Struggle:

Many animals with genetic defects, including Albinism and Melanism, don’t last long in the wild. The African bush is a harsh and unforgiving place. Even more so for these animals because the lack of camouflage, the inability to move or feed properly means genetic defects result in decreased chances of survival. Either that, or they are simply targeted by predators.

This much is true for a baby elephant spotted in MalaMala Private Game Reserve in August 2006. Former MalaMala ranger, Anthony Harding, explained that this baby survived for only a few months with a deformed back leg, which made it incredibly difficult for it to move around. Supported by the herd, it lived longer than would normally be expected and travelled between neighbouring private game reserves. It is suspected that the calf died under the claws and jaws of a lion pride somewhere within MalaMala’s borders. The photos were generously shared by Anthony Harding.

EDIT: Warren Pearson, an ex-Londolozi ranger, tells us on Facebook that he believes it was a pack of hyena and not a pride of lion as previously stated. Either way, a sad end to a sad tale.

Baby Elephant with bad leg
Image credit: Anthony Harding
Baby Elephant with bad leg
Image credit: Anthony Harding

Do you have any stories or pictures to share of African animals with rare genetic defects or anomalies? We’d be interested to know!


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About the author 

Craig Harding

Craig Harding is the general go-to guy at Rhino Africa. He's pretty chilled out so he's the right guy to have by your side on an intrepid adventure. He says 'the journey is the destination' so we just all nod and agree - it's better that way...

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