Tumbling Towers - Saving North Kenya's Giraffes

It's not hard to see why a group of giraffes is called a tower. These gentle giants can reach around 5 metres (16 feet) tall. With their elegant gait and beautiful eyelashes, they are one of Africa's most endearing and iconic species. In September, they made headlines when the Giraffe Conservation Foundation announced the results of a recent study that showed according to genetics, there are, in fact, four totally separate giraffe species. Until now, the world had thought there was only one. The experts are still digesting this new information.

But overall, giraffes are in trouble. It is estimated that populations across Africa have declined by 40% in just a few decades, due to habitat loss, land degradation and in some areas intense bush meat poaching. They are already extinct in seven African countries. The reticulated giraffe, found in northern Kenya, has declined a by perhaps 70% - with only 8,000 to 10,000 estimated to remain in the wild. 

 NRT are working with San Diego Zoo Global, the Giraffe Conservation Foundation, The Nature Conservancy, Loisaba Conservancy, Global Conservation Force, Sarara Camp and Lewa Wildlife Conservancy to try and reverse this trend. The two-year pilot project - dubbed the Reticulated Giraffe Conservation with Pastoralists Initiative - was launched in Namunyak and Loisaba in May 2016. Its aim is to work with local pastoralists, who come across giraffes on a daily basis, to gather data about their movements, numbers, interactions and behaviors. In addition to gaining a better understanding of giraffe, the pilot will test whether the data can be used by conservancies to help shape overall conservation strategies, and target their support to areas where it's needed the most. The project also aims to assess local attitudes towards giraffe. 

A team of six people from the local communities (two members from Il Polei, and are based at Loisaba and four from Namunyak) have been funded by San Diego Zoo Global as Twiga Walinzi (giraffe guardians). Led by Symon Masiaine, the Twiga Walinzi monitor giraffe movements daily, take geo-located photographs, and manage a network of 120 camera traps across the two sites. Using pattern recognition software, the images from these cameras are being used to build up a photo ID database for individual giraffes, as patterns are unique to every animal. Symon and his team have already identified 50 different individuals in Loisaba, and are tracking those individuals using geo-located photos.

“When I was growing up, there were a lot of giraffes. Now there aren’t many. But they are important to communities — tourists want to see giraffes, so they create jobs. This program is creating awareness about their decline and measures to ensure that people do not kill them. Local scouts are the best tool for spreading the word.” Says Symon. 

The team in Namunyak — Daniel Lenaipa, Johnston Lekushan,Jonathan Lenyakopiro, and Sebastian Lerapayo have also been successful in identifying individual giraffes, and carry out most of their work on foot. The Twiga Walinzi also work with rangers to conduct snare removal patrols, and follow up on poaching incidents.  

Talking to communities that live with giraffes is the other big dimension to their work. They aim to assess how people interact with giraffes, how often they see them, how much poaching they witness, and whether or not they are consuming giraffe meat. To do this, the team uses Human Dimension Questionnaires, answered anonymously by community members (some questions about poaching are sensitive, and might elicit untruthful responses.) These questionnaires, filled out on iPads, are helping the team gather baseline data to help inform and develop the program.

"I can’t properly express how important this work is, how incredible and dedicated the giraffe team members in Kenya are, and how much they are doing in challenging circumstances" says David O’Connor, research coordinator at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. "Not only are they helping us learn more about giraffes, they are also actively protecting them—as well as engaging with and working with communities who live with giraffes every day. In just five months since we started, the team has had an incredible and positive impact in the areas they are working."

Loisaba is also the pilot site for a livestock satellite tracking programme, which aims to collaborate giraffe movement maps with those of livestock movements. If they are able to go ahead, the team will also may attach satellite trackers to giraffe.

Read San Diego Zoo Global's latest blog post on the project here.