Reticulated Giraffe Conservation with Pastoralists
Giraffe are icons of Africa and particularly reticulated giraffe (Giraffa reticulata) are often considered the most stunning of all subspecies. Giraffe are integral to their ecosystems, opening up habitat for other wildlife, spurring growth of new Acacia forage, and dispersing seeds. Giraffe form the basis of most zoo collections, and are much loved, adored as toys and book characters. Reticulated giraffe historically ranged from north-central Kenya to southern Somalia and Ethiopia. However, over just the past 15 years they have declined drastically by ~80%, from 36,000 to about 8,600 today. If this trend continued, these giraffe could be extinct by 2020. The IUCN SSC Giraffe & Okapi Specialist Group is currently assessing the Red List status of reticulated giraffe, which may result in them being listed as a threatened category in recognition of the dramatic drop in numbers. We must act now, and fast. For this reason, together with our partners and alongside pastoralists, we are harnessing our collective giraffe expertise to take up the fight against reticulated giraffe extinction.
Reasons for giraffe decline
- Poaching. Giraffe are relatively easy to kill with a bullet or a snare and yield a lot of meat. Over the past decade, regional instability, ethic fighting, increased elephant poaching, and a growing belief that giraffe bone marrow and brains can cure HIV/AIDS have all spurned increased illegal hunting. Poaching is now rampant, as an example 130 giraffe snares were removed from Tsavo National Park, Kenya in June 2014 alone.
- Habitat loss and fragmentation. Former open spaces for giraffe are disappearing or fragmenting because of development, land-use switches to agriculture, and/or are uninhabitable due to over-grazing.
- Competition for food and water resources from a newly introduced species of livestock into giraffe habitat, the domestic camel. Being a large, tall, browsing ungulate the camel can overlap in feeding heights and species with wild giraffe.
Hampering our response to these threats, is the surprising dearth of information about giraffe ecology. They are the forgotten megafauna. We still do not fully understand how they move across the landscape, how and what they eat, how many are left, their social structure, how they interact with people and livestock. As such, giraffe are rapidly disappearing, with little notice. It is especially worrying as most of the reticulated giraffe’s range in Kenya is outside of protected areas, overlapping with pastoralist herders and small-scale agriculturalists.
It is critical that our conservation actions are multidimensional, encompassing three core elements:
- Continued field research to better understand giraffe populations, movements and ecology. These data will be vital to informing more effective and efficient conservation actions moving forward.
- Uncovering traditional ecological knowledge of giraffe, and the attitudes, perceptions, beliefs and behaviours of the Samburu, Turkana, Borana and Maasai pastoralists that live among giraffe. This information allows us to better appreciate the reasons behind poaching and conflict with giraffe. This is especially timely with ongoing immigration into the region from war-torn Somalia and South Sudan which may negative affect giraffe survival.
- Tracking and mapping livestock movements, by attaching GPS collars to livestock – camels, cattle and goats/sheep – as they are herded in the landscape, will allow us to understand how they utilise resources, and overlap with giraffe.
Working in the core of the reticulated giraffe’s range, we will use these novel socio-ecological approaches to gain a holistic understanding of giraffe ecology, and the drivers of decline. We will then use this preliminary information, and our collaborative relationships to design conservation interventions. These will include engaging herder scientists to gather data by training warriors and empowering women to conduct giraffe surveys recording encounters on GPS and taking photos for individual IDs.
Creating the Twiga Walinzi (giraffe guards), a team of pastoralists to conduct patrols for giraffe and to manage camera trap placements. In addition, members of the San Diego Zoo education team are developing giraffe conservation education programs for middle school students in the U.S., and exploring with communities and educators in Kenya on whether a giraffe conservation education program in region would be useful, and if so what is the most effective and feasible design and implementation approaches.
Collaborative, localised, multi-pronged approaches are required to stem the decline of reticulated giraffe, and create sustainable conservation initiatives with the people with whom the giraffe overlap so that we can secure a sustainable future for these giants in the wild.
The project is a community-based collaborative conservation effort spearheaded by San Diego Zoo Global institute for Conservation Research in collaboration with GCF, several Kenyan organisations (Kenya Wildlife Service, Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, Namunyak Conservancy, Northern Rangeland Trust and The Nature Conservancy), and the help of the local people of northern Kenya.