Saving the Rothschild Giraffe in Kenya

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By Sharon Atieno

Of the nine subspecies of giraffes found in Africa, Kenya hosts three: the Rothschild, the Maasai and the Reticulated giraffe. However, there has been an almost 40% decline in the giraffe population in the country over the past three decades.

In 1998, the total giraffe population was estimated to be around 45,000 individuals, but the National recovery and action plan for giraffes in Kenya 2018-2022 notes that this has reduced to an estimated 28,850 individuals.

So dire is the situation that during this year’s World Giraffe Day celebration on 21st June 2020, the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) Director-General, Brig. (Rtd.) John Waweru, emphasized the urgent need to reverse the decrease.

The COVID-19 pandemic may cause the population to decline further. Speaking during a webinar on Impact of COVID-19 on Wildlife Conservation in the East African Community, Brig. (Rtd.)  Waweru noted that during this COVID-19 period, there was an upsurge in bushmeat poaching and that giraffes were among the animals being poached.

“Between January and May 2019, we recovered 1.8 tonnes of bush meat that was illegally poached and the same period between January to May 2020, we have 2.8 tonnes, so we are talking about an increase of about 51.4 %,” the KWS Director General said.

In June, a local daily reported that a joint operation team consisting of officers from KWS, Northern Rangelands Trust and the Director of Criminal Investigations had recovered 150kg of giraffe meat, and carcasses of four dik diks and two lesser kudu in Ijara area of Garissa County.

School children feeding a giraffe

According to Bernard Bett, Senior scientist, co-leading research working on emerging infectious diseases at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), giraffes have come under increased poaching pressure probably because they can be snared more readily compared to other wilder animals and can be traced in open and accessible plains. Also, their big body mass would fetch higher marginal revenues in the bushmeat market compared to those of smaller animals.

He notes that bushmeat processing and consumption are critical pathways through which zoonotic agents get transmitted from wild animals to humans.

“It should be stressed that research studies have identified carcasses from giraffe and those of other large mammals such as buffaloes, wildebeests, eland, gazelles, warthogs, zebras and porcupines as having hazardous infectious agents including Bacillus, Brucella and Coxiella spp.,” Bett adds, saying that these get transmitted to humans either directly through contact, consumption of raw or poorly cooked meat or as aerosolised infectious agents while restraining or slaughtering trapped animals or transporting carcasses.

Of the giraffe species in the country, the rothschild is the only subspecies enlisted among the KWS most threatened and endangered mammals’ priority list. Though there are about 29,000 giraffes in Kenya (a quarter of the population of the African elephants ), the Rothschild giraffes make up only 765 of the population, according to 2018 estimates by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). 

Globally, the Rothschild giraffe, scientifically named giraffa camelopardalis rothschildi, is only found in Uganda and Kenya. The subspecies known for their distinctive white stockings ( the knee to the hooves are not spotted) are selective browsers that inhibit acacia and combretum dominated savanna systems, where they browse on a wide range of selected tree species.

Before 2018, the subspecies was listed in the IUCN’s Red List as endangered and has recently been moved to near threatened because of the slight increase in the general population in both Kenya and Uganda to reach a total of 2,098 individuals.

The IUCN notes that the population of the subspecies in Kenya has diminished greatly to an extent that they have become locally extinct from their natural range due to illegal hunting, agricultural development, human encroachment, habitat destruction and fragmentation.

It is only through conservation and translocation efforts that the Rothschild giraffe population in Kenya has been saved from extinction. From just a few hundred individuals in the 1960s to the current 765.

Leading the conservation efforts of the subspecies in the country is the Giraffe Centre, an entity of the African fund for endangered wildlife (AFEW) Kenya.

The founders of the centre – Jock and Betty Leslie-Melville-in a bid to save the subspecies, after losing their habitat in western Kenya to the resettlement of squatters, brought two young giraffes to their home in the Lang’ata suburb, southwest of Nairobi. Here, they raised the calves and started a programme of breeding giraffe in captivity. This is where the centre remains to date.

The giraffe centre in Nairobi, Kenya

“The idea was to be breeding the Rothschild giraffe at the centre and be translocating most of the young ones after every two to three years back to the wild so that they can build the population of these endangered species of the giraffes,” notes Emmanuel Ngumbi, the Conservation Programmes Manager, Giraffe centre.

Alongside breeding of the Rothschild giraffe, the centre also doubles up as a conservation education centre where awareness is created among Kenyans especially the youth on how different species can be endangered. 

“School groups come in for free of charge so long as they have booked from Monday to Friday. In a year, we receive more than 50,000 students who come in for free. They learn about giraffes and general conservation in the country, and they get a chance to come up close with the giraffes and feed them to interact with them and watch a nature movie,” he says.

Currently, the 120 acres property hosts 11 giraffes: five young ones, five mature females and one mature bull.

The centre runs a natural breeding programme, where the giraffes are allowed to breed naturally without the use of artificial insemination.

The Conservation Programmes manager says that once the giraffes give birth, they let the young ones stay for about two to three years before they are translocated back to the wild. 

“But to avoid in-breeding between the giraffes we have in the centre, we bring in two or one giraffes after three to four years to stabilize the gene pool and avid in-breeding so that we make sure we have strong offsprings which are born out of the breeding pool which is hosted by the giraffe centre,” he adds..

 Since its inception, the centre has hosted more than 60 giraffes, of which 25 have been successfully translocated and integrated back to the wild in different places across the country where there are members of the same type of giraffes.

“We cannot translocate these giraffes to places where we have the other two types of giraffes which are found in the country because they can interbreed and we lose the subspecies or either of the two subspecies because they will produce a hybrid,” notes Ngumbi.

Some have been translocated to Soysambu, Lake Nakuru National Park, Sergoit Farm and Mwea Game Reserve.

Ngumbi laments that diseases pose a big challenge to the breeding programme and being that there are very few studies carried on the giraffe species, disease management is difficult.

“Sometimes we have lost a few giraffes one after another and even by taking samples to the labs, the best labs even in the country, we have not been able to get very conclusive results,” he notes.

The Conservation programmes manager adds that the giraffe centre does not have its own resident veterinary officer.

“We have to rely on KWS, so if their officers are stretched and away from the main headquarters, it might take time before they are able to respond quickly to the giraffe cases being reported to them,” Ngumbi says.

He also admits that they do not have a capture unit and still have to depend on KWS to move the giraffes from the centre and to bring giraffes from different areas to the centre when they need to stabilize the gene pool.

The overreliance on the tourism industry has been challenging for the conservancy especially during this COVID-19 period, where there are travel bans. Ngumbi notes that this has lowered their income levels and it might pose a challenge in the future with regards to their breeding programme.

He adds that if they are not able to generate enough funds, it will be difficult for them to take care of the welfare of the giraffes, their staff that cater for those giraffes as well as supporting other conservation organizations who are promoting the conservation of other endangered wildlife species.

Rothschild giraffes at the Giraffe centre

Apart from playing a vital role in saving the Rothschild giraffe from extinction, the centre prides itself in contributing to the development of the giraffe conservation strategy which will guide future conservation of all the three types of giraffes in the country.

The centre using mark recapture surveys, which involves taking photographs and running them through a software which analyses the patterns on the giraffes’ body as they are definite like fingerprints, has worked closely with the KWS to carry out research on the population of the rothschild giraffes in Ruma National Park, Mwea Game Reserve and Lake Nakuru National Park.

“We were the first people together with the Giraffe Conservation Foundation and the Kenya Wildlife Service to use this new technology within the country for undertaking giraffe surveys where you don’t need to dart the animals, you don’t need to spend so much time doing raw surveys,” he says.

Ngumbi urges people to put more effort and drive funds in research of giraffes as a species so that they can be saved for the future.

“Everybody in the world talks about the elephants and the rhinos when it comes to getting conservation and research funds, more so the scientists and the conservationists are focused on the elephants and the rhinos but if you think about the numbers that we are losing in terms of the giraffe population then it means we need to rethink and start focusing on their conservation, otherwise soon they might be wiped out,” he says.

Of the seven out of nine subspecies of giraffes assessed by the IUCN, only two have improved in their conservation status from endangered (West African and Rothschild’s giraffe) to vulnerable and near threatened respectively. The rest have registered no change in their status. Therefore, there is a need for concerted efforts between African governments and conservation organizations to ensure that all species of giraffes are conserved and prevented from extinction.

This story was published in partnership with Infonile with support from Internews’ Earth Journalism Network