Halting the demise of giraffe

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01_SixGiraffes_TomMustillThe unmistakable silhouettes of giraffe are a staple of an African savannah scene. Yet giraffe numbers are dwindling sharply. Data collected by the Giraffe Conservation Foundation (GCF) reveals numbers have dropped by almost 40% in the past 15 years and there are just 90,000 left. Rose Gamble spoke to Dr Julian Fennessy, co-founder of the GCF, who recently helped translocate 20 giraffe across the Nile. 

How did you come to found the GCF?
I am an Aussie and was fortunate as a young lad to live for a year in South Africa. It completely changed who I am and what I wanted to do. After I finished my degree, I moved to Namibia. I then completed my PhD and spent time working in Australia and Kenya for various wildlife organisations. Then my wife Steph and I realised the time was right to do something for giraffes so we established GCF.

Why are giraffe numbers dwindling?
The increasing demand for agricultural land and towns in Africa means areas become fragmented and the losses of wildlife and their habitat are huge. Illegal bushmeat poaching is rife and disease spreading. Giraffe have suffered from all these impacts and some pockets of giraffe are hanging on by a thread. Two giraffe subspecies are already listed as Endangered – West African giraffe (around 400 remaining in all regions) and Rothschild’s giraffe (around 1,500 remaining in the wild across Uganda and Kenya).

Can you explain a little about your DNA findings regarding different species of giraffe?
Over the last decade, we’ve collected DNA samples from all major giraffe populations and analysed their genetics. Currently, giraffe is considered one species with nine subspecies. Determined about 200 years ago, this information may not fit with recent finding and there are potentially a few different species. We hope to share exciting news soon!

Why do you think there has been so little research carried out on giraffe?
Giraffe are one of the most loved animals in world, it makes no sense. People assume giraffe are everywhere as when you come on safaris you see them in the majority of large game parks. Outside of these parks in many countries there are none. So a combination of complacency and ignorance – most people in the world know little about giraffe, and therefore we need to get the message out there.

Can you explain one of your discoveries?
We’ve worked on the first truly detailed understanding of how many giraffe there are in the continent, where they currently live, the threats etc. To me this is the basis of all our giraffe conservation work.

Why did you translocated 20 giraffe across the Nile from one side of Murchison Falls National Park to the other?
Rothschild’s giraffe were listed as Endangered and we decided that one of our priorities should be to provide increased support for this subspecies. After working closely with the Uganda Wildlife Authority one of the key efforts they wanted to see was the (re-)establishment of satellite populations of Rothschild’s giraffe across Uganda to help with increasing their numbers.

How did you do this?
Simple – catch them, load into a trailer, drop them at a boma for a few days to settle with others, then onto a bigger truck and move them together to their new home. In the case of those in Uganda’s Murchison Falls NP, this meant also driving onto a barge to cross the mighty Nile River – amazing experience.

What does a typical day look like for you?
If l am in the field, then likely up early and off to either collar a giraffe, collect DNA tissue samples for assessing what species/subspecies they are, surveying giraffe numbers, chats with local communities and/or staff, etc. If lucky, finish with a cold one overlooking the most amazing and diverse continent in the world.

What do you hope your research will achieve?
In a nutshell we hope that through our work we will first better understand what is going on with giraffe, how many, where, the threats, etc. and then provide ideas, solutions and support to hopefully curb the tide of their demise.

Do you have a particular destination in Africa you would recommend visiting?
With a little bias, my favourite place is Namibia. The vast arid landscapes, amazing wildlife, and variety of surf and sand (dunes) is a must see. Namibia is often referred to as Africa for beginners or the land God created in anger – which conjures up all sorts of images. Every time l head back, l am excited and see something new!

Julian’s work and the giraffe translocation will be featured in a BBC documentary, Giraffe’s: Africa’s Gentle Giants, on 23 July. Narrated by Sir David Attenborough bbc.co.uk/naturalworld (view the Preview for the documentary here) Photographs supplied by Tom Mustill and George Woodcock.

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