ALL over Africa, giraffes are in serious decline. Some 30% may have been lost in the past 10 years alone. The principal reasons are poaching, especially for meat, and loss of habitat.
Reticulated giraffes seem to have fared especially badly, with a drop in numbers of more than 80% from perhaps 30,000 a decade ago to fewer than 5,000 today. Reticulated giraffes found in Kenya’s drylands – specifically in the thorn scrublands of the northeastern region – are far from plentiful.
John Doherty, project coordinator of the Reticulated Giraffe Project was born with an inate fascination for animals and plants – and has always loved giraffes. Based in Samburu, his daily jobs requires spending long hours in the vehicle watching the giants and then logging in data to analyse.
Aiming to gain deeper insight into this tall animal, Rupi Mangat spoke to Doherty in an interview:
RM: What drew you to start a research on Reticulated giraffes?
JD: They are in very serious trouble and I want to do something about that.
RM: What’s cool about reticulated giraffes?
JD: To me, giraffes represent an echo of a younger planet that was inhabited by all manner of giant life forms. They’re like the prehistoric animals that I used to pore over in books as a child but they have somehow survived into modern times. They’re like creatures of fantasy: almost too amazing to be true.
RM: Are they threatened?
JD: Very much so. More that 80% of the population that existed as recently as 1998 has since disappeared. Today there are fewer than 5,000 remaining, probably because of the effects of climate change and poverty of the millions of people among whom they live alongside. They are sometimes hunted.
RM: Where else apart from Kenya are they only found?
JD: There may be small populations left in southern Ethiopia and south-western Somalia but reliable data from those areas are few. In the past, reticulated giraffes are thought to have ranged over much of the Horn of Africa but the great majority of those that survive today are found in Kenya’s north-eastern rangelands.
RM: Are there any records of them from antiquity?
JD: In prehistoric times, giraffes looked very different from the ones we know today. Modern giraffes first appeared in East Africa more than a million years ago and later spread west and south to other parts of the continent. Kenya has more kind of giraffe than any other country, probably because they’ve been here for so long.
RM: The other two species are the Rothschild giraffes and the Maasai giraffes.
According to Zoe Muller of the Giraffe Research & Conservation Trust (GRCT), Rothschild giraffes are named after Sir Walter Rothschild as he was the first zoologist to officially describe it following an expedition to Kenya in the early 1900s.
The current population of Rocthschild giraffes in Kenya is estimated to be around 450 individuals, (with a further 660 in Uganda in Murchison Falls National Park).
In the 1970s, it seemed that their fate was sealed when the ranch in western Kenya where the giraffes were naturally found was sold to small-scale farmers. A breeding herd was brought to Nairobi’s famous Giraffe Manor in the 1970s. Since then, many Rothschild giraffes have been sired there and moved to other national parks.
Soysambu Conservancy, 120km northwest of Nairobi on the shores of Lake Elementaita is home to almost 70, which represents around 6% of the global remaining population (global population is 1,100 in Kenya and Uganda).
They still face threats like habitat loss through deforestation and conversion to farming land, and through oil exploration in Murchison Falls National Park and poaching.
According to Muller, there are currently considered to be nine subspecies of giraffe across Africa, although some recent genetic work has suggested that the Rothschild’s giraffe is genetically distinct enough to be considered as a separate species of giraffe. Work is ongoing and time will tell if this classification will be made. Should the Rothschild’s giraffe be announced as a new species of giraffe, it will then become one of the most critically endangered mammal species on the planet.
Maasai giraffes are the most common and most often seen south of the Equator.
RM: How different are Reticulated giraffes from other two species?
Of the nine different kinds of giraffes in Africa, eight are variations on the theme of a pale coat with darker spots. The Reticulated giraffe, by contrast, looks like a dark animal wearing a string vest. The word “reticulated” means “netted” and refers to the pattern of clean white lines on their beautiful, dark-red coats.
RM: What’s the future for them?
Their future is in our hands. I tell myself that when people realise how endangered giraffes have become, they’ll demand effective action to protect them.
•The Reticulated Giraffe Project is based in Samburu, Buffalo Springs and Shaba National Reserves in northern Kenya. Doherty with his colleague Jacob Leaidura have spent years learning to recognise hundreds of individual giraffes on sight so that they can study their behaviour and interactions.
Read more on www.reticulatedgiraffeproject.net.
In 2013, the Giraffe Research & Conservation Trust (GRCT) was established by Zoe Muller as Africa’s first charitable organisation dedicated to giraffes. The organisation was founded following on from the success of the Rothschild’s Giraffe Project which was the first comprehensive scientific study of the Rothschild’s giraffe in the wild. The aim of the Giraffe Research & Conservation Trust is to facilitate the research and conservation of giraffes across Africa, so ensure a future for all giraffes in the wild.
In 2013, GRCT set up the Giraffe Research & Education Centre in Soysambu Conservancy. This provides a base from which all giraffe research and conservation work is conducted, including community outreach and education activities. The Centre offers accommodation and facilities for giraffe researchers, conservationists and students. It also has the biggest giraffe-specific library in the world. The Trust website is www.giraffetrust.org