The great white hunted: plight of albino animals

Rare albino animals in the wild are being preyed on by bounty hunters eager to scoop up 10 times the amount paid for more common creatures. Paul Bignell reports

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It is the ultimate hunter's prize. From the timid deer to the rampant tiger: the whiter the animal, the bigger the bounty on its head. As deer stalkers take to the British countryside this week for the British roebuck shooting season, one young deer will be a more vulnerable position than its peers. An extraordinarily rare, white deer has had a four-figure bounty put on its head as hunters clamour to be the first to kill the animal.

The white roe, nicknamed Pearl by animal rights protesters, was initially spotted in December in Dumfries, in the Scottish lowlands. It is one of about a dozen found since the Second World War, according to experts. The animal is usually brown coated and one of the most common species in the UK, with an estimated 800,000 living up and down the British Isles.

Initially it was thought the deer was suffering from albinism, but experts now believe a rare genetic mutation resulting in a condition called leucism has changed the deer's pigmentation.

Now hunters are keen to stalk the animal and be the first to kill it. One German stalker has reputedly offered more than £5,400 for the deer.

"Selling the opportunity to shoot this deer is a very good money earner," said Charlie Jacoby, editor of Sporting Rifle magazine, which is to publish a diary chronicling the animal's life, and death. "American and German hunters like deer and once this deer has its antlers, it will be even more attractive to them for stalking."

But Kevin Stuart, who owns the stalking rights to the 3,000 acres of land, this weekend vowed to protect the animal. Mr Stuart last saw the creature about 10 days ago, but is reluctant to get close to it as it may alert people to its whereabouts. "As long as the deer stays within the confines of the estate it will be fine. But it is a wild animal and will go wherever it wants to go. At the moment it is a yearling and doesn't even have antlers. It is a beautiful animal and we are worried about poachers and people coming to shoot it."

The Scottish MSP Elaine Murray has put forward a motion in Parliament to have the animal protected. "We are also looking to whether protection could apply to an animal which is genetically rare from a species itself that isn't particularly rare," she said.

The white deer is just one example of many white or albino animals that have attracted the attention of hunters, illegal animal traders and the plain curious. An albino corn snake can fetch about $500 (£350). Albino alligators are also prized possessions. Last year, seven rare albino alligators were stolen from a zoo in Brazil. They were said to be worth $10,000 each. White tigers have been hunted to such a degree that they are effectively extinct in the wild. Inbreeding in captivity has led to an abundance in zoos. Assuming they could get at them, hunters are reportedly willing to pay as much as $60,000 for a chance to shoot one of the animals, 10 times the bounty for a normal tiger.

Alistair Currie, senior researcher at the animal charity Peta, said: "It is an incredibly Victorian attitude that if something is unusual your response is to kill it. You would hope that if people take the view that if something is unusual, they would want to preserve it and that it should be valued."

Most wanted

1) A white roebuck in Kirkconnell, Scotland; 2) an albino baby alligator in its home in Sao Paulo's aquarium; 3) a white lobster occurs in one in 100 million, while a blue one is found in one in five million; 4) a white tiger with the genetic condition leucism; 5) an albino Burmese python; 6) Snowflake, the albino gorilla who died in Barcelona zoo in 2003

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