HONG KONG — An all-white, albino panda has appeared in a natural reserve in China, the first of its kind to be documented, an expert said this week.
The panda was photographed in April with an infrared camera at the Wolong National Nature Reserve in the southwestern province of Sichuan, the local authorities said in a statement.
Li Sheng, who belongs to the Species Survival Commission of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, said it was the first recorded image of a wild giant panda that is fully white. (There have been sightings of brown-and-white pandas in Qinling, a mountainous region in the northwestern Chinese province of Shaanxi.)
The white panda’s appearance is caused by albinism, a rare genetically inherited condition that prevents the normal synthesis of melanin, resulting in white hair or pale skin, as well as reddish eyes. Giant pandas are one of eight bear species, and albinism has been recorded in many other species of bears, though rarely.
“I personally think it’s quite random for it to be discovered, since albinism manifests itself so infrequently,” Dr. Li said in a telephone interview. “This was recorded just in time.”
Aside from sensitivity to sunlight, albinism does not usually have a negative impact on the anatomy or life functions of animals, but their unusual appearance can make them easier to detect in the wild.
“Based on the photo, albinism has not affected the life of the white panda much,” said Dr. Li, who is also a researcher at Peking University. “It looks quite well, quite strong.”
Duan Zhaogang, the Communist Party secretary of the Wolong district, said in the statement that the reserve would increase its use of infrared cameras in order to track the growth and movements of the panda, which is estimated to be 1 or 2 years old, and its potential offspring. (The mutation, which comes from a recessive gene, can be passed down.)
Wild pandas can be difficult to study because they mostly live alone, often in remote areas. To facilitate research, a Chinese conservation center has developed a facial recognition app that can distinguish one panda from another, the state news media said this month. Nearly 10,000 images of pandas from a database have been analyzed since 2017.
There are about 1,900 giant pandas living in the wild, according to a 2016 report by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Citing an increase in the panda population that was credited to the Chinese government, the group changed the panda’s conservation status at that time from “endangered” to “vulnerable.” But Chinese officials opposed the move, arguing that pandas still struggle to reproduce in fragmented patches of wilderness.
Also this month, a rare Asiatic black bear was caught on camera in the Demilitarized Zone that separates North and South Korea. Flora and fauna thrive in the region, also known as the DMZ, because it is rarely disturbed by humans.
Follow Tiffany May on Twitter: @nytmay
Claire Fu contributed research from Beijing.