Fiona Mackay tells us about the conservation work being done in Kidepo Valley National Park to protect the world’s tallest mammal, which was listed as Vulnerable to Extinction by the IUCN in 2017
ike many animals across the world, giraffe have an uncertain future. They are facing what has been termed a ‘silent extinction’. While the world’s attention remains on elephant, rhino and the big cats, this iconic animal is gradually disappearing, suffering the effects of both habitat loss and subsistence poaching.
In the mid 1980s, it was estimated that 150,000 giraffe roamed the African savannahs. Within the past 30 years, this number has plummeted to a mere 98,000. Prompted by this staggering decline, in 2017 the IUCN officially listed all giraffe as Vulnerable to Extinction on their Red List of Threatened Species.
Fortunately, Dr Julian Fennessy, and his wife Stephanie, have spent the last 20 years quietly working throughout the continent to better understand the plight faced by this beautiful animal. In 2009, they established the Giraffe Conservation Foundation (GCF) and have set in motion multiple initiatives across Africa in an attempt to reverse the worrying decrease in numbers.
In Uganda, the GCF has been working closely with the Ugandan Wildlife Authority (UWA) to actively monitor the thriving population of rare Rothschild’s giraffe (recently proven to be genetically identical to the Nubian giraffe – and subsumed into them as they were named first) found north of the Nile in Murchison Falls National Park.
Gathering vital conservation research data, the GCF has supported the UWA in creating a National Strategy and Action Plan for giraffe conservation within the country. Over the past few years, they have successfully translocated them across the Nile, to the southern side of Murchison Falls National Park and reintroduced them into Lake Mburo National Park, in south-west Uganda. This has effectively created two completely new satellite populations, which means within Uganda there are now four independent populations.
The focus has now fallen on Kidepo Valley National Park, which lies in north-eastern Uganda, on the border with Kenya and South Sudan. Kidepo is one of Africa’s last true wilderness areas, offering vast plains and mountainous vistas. Previously home to heavily armed and hostile communities, Kidepo lay forgotten by the outside world for decades. It is only as recently as 2006, following the disarmament of the local population, that the region has once more become accessible by road and considered a safe place to visit.
Although historic evidence suggests Kidepo formerly supported one of Uganda’s largest Nubian giraffe populations – approximately 400 in the late 1960s — they were hit heavily by poaching and declined rapidly. By the early 1990s, just three individuals remained. At this point, three more were brought in from Kenya to supplement the dangerously dwindling population. Unfortunately, shortly after arrival, one of them succumbed to lion predation.
With the newfound stability and increased security in the region, hopes are high once more. Over the past three years, the GCF and UWA have been conducting an annual survey of Kidepo’s giraffe to help understand the dynamics of this tiny population and establish what would be required to safeguard and increase numbers in the future.
I joined Julian and a combined GCF and UWA team as they undertook their third survey. Our aim was to count, photograph and identify as many individuals as possible, to gain an accurate estimate of the numbers remaining in the park. Simultaneously, we assessed the distribution and potential threats faced by the region’s giraffe. We were tasked with collecting DNA tissue samples and fitting two solar-powered GPS satellite units to an adult female and an adult male, to gain an understanding of their movements across the park.
To achieve this, we split up into three teams and divided the park into three parts. Each day, each group was allocated a region and systematically traversed that area looking for giraffe. When we spotted one, we took photographs of both their left and right sides, a task far easier said than done, while also recording their age, sex and GPS location. Every pelage (coat) pattern is unique. By comparing our pictures with those from previous years, we were able to accurately identify one that had already been recorded, and therefore, more accurately assess the true population size.
It was a successful week, and the teams survey results were promising. During the six days of the count, we managed to record all of the giraffe that had been identified in the previous surveys, including two calves born the year before. This confirmed the UWA ranger’s observations that none had died since the last count. We also identified six new calves that had been born in the last year. These new additions were fantastic news and brought the tiny population up to a total of 32.
We were also able to add to the samples of DNA tissue previously collected. The team used a remote biopsy-dart delivery system to gather the samples. A dart is fired from a gas-powered dart gun from a safe distance, it then drops from the animal to the ground where it can be safely retrieved.
The samples are carefully preserved in the field and stored until they can be sent to a lab for analysis. This DNA sampling is being undertaken to assess inbreeding depression within the population and to add data to a central pool of genetic information on giraffe throughout Africa.
The week culminated with the successful darting and GPS satellite tagging of two giraffe. It is hoped that in time these individuals will provide information about how the animals are currently utilising the resources available in the park – and also to better understand the potential threats they may face.
With the region’s relative stability and increasing tourism presence (and revenue), the hope is that Kidepo may prove to be a suitable location for a future translocation of giraffe to bolster the existing population. This would establish another viable stronghold where this endangered creature can finally thrive on the vast savannah it once called home.
Read about riding alongside giraffe in Lake Mburu National Park here.