Did you know that there are 9 subspecies of giraffe existing in Africa? And did you know that giraffe have become extinct in 7 African countries?
Whilst traveling in January 2016 in Uganda, I had the privilege of meeting some of the UWA (Uganda Wildlife Authority) team who were part of the conservation efforts to translocate some of the Rothschild’s herd from Murchison Falls to Lake Mburo in Western Uganda. A wonderful and educating moment that I am sharing with you now.
The Silent Extinction
When we think of endangered species people generally associate these with tigers and big cats, elephants, rhinos, orangutans – the ones we hear about being hunted for poaching trade, used for animal parts, the live animal trade. However, among the many more species on the endangered list (tiny insects and bees to macroscopic whales), these majestic ruminants are estimated at less than 80,000 remaining in the wild.
Of the 9 subspecies, 2 of them are on the endangered list – West African and the Rothschild’s giraffe numbering less than 300 and 1600 respectively. Of the Rothschilds, circa 1000 are believed to be left in the wild in Uganda. (Note that numbers vary vastly dependent on the source). The remaining ones live in captivity.
History – the Human/Wildlife Conflict
Human trade in pastoral cattle and more outreaching trade caused the rinderpest virus to be introduced to sub-Saharan Africa from Ethiopia. At a time when there was no vaccine, this led to The Great Rinderpest Pandemic in the 1890s causing swathes of cattle and other ruminants to be hit hard by the virus. This including the giraffe as well as antelope species.
“Many of the lessons learned from the rinderpest eradication process are relevant to undertaking control of other livestock plagues.” – Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.
Whilst rinderpest has been successfully eradicated now, the last outbreak reported in 1994, protection against similar viruses in pastoral and wildlife populations is still a priority.
Present Day – the Human/Wildlife Hope
Whilst traveling in January 2016 in Uganda, I had the privilege of meeting some of the UWA (Uganda Wildlife Authority) team who were part of the conservation efforts to translocate some of the Rothschild’s herd from Murchison Falls to Lake Mburo in Western Uganda.
Few facts before I start telling the story of this unique witnessing event.
- Gestation periods are long (14 to 16 months) resulting in normally a single calf.
- Herd sizes are small.
- There are notably only 2 locations where Rothschild’s are present in the wild – Kenya and Uganda.
Conservation efforts focus on splitting up the current herds to:
- Avoid hybridization i.e. breeding with other subspecies of giraffes to keep them intact.
- Diversify the gene pool to ensure there is as little risk as possible for the young to be born with deformities.
- Separate the populations to different areas to reduce the risks of future viruses or diseases.
The idea to relocate species and giraffes specifically is not without precedence. In 2011 a small number of Rothschild’s were successfully reintroduced back to their native range on an island in Lake Baringo, Kenya. Rothschild’s had also been previously re-introduced to Lake Mburo National Park after a period of absence of circa 100 years. It is hoped that the chosen giraffe will comfortably cohabit the area with the latter herd.
The aim is for individual – mainly female – giraffes to be targeted and captured and then transferred in large trucks across the Nile.
This is not an easy task and that day a team of around 30 were learning on the job, first tracking, then darting the chosen giraffe. Once darted, they needed to follow them at a distance until they started to feel the effects of the tranquilizer and it took the majority of the crew to safely bring them down whilst protecting the powerful necks.
There was no way to lift the giraffe whilst tranquilised, so they had to give them an antidote, wait for them to wake up and then guide them into a waiting truck to transport to the holding compound. Remember that giraffe may be seen as gentle however like any animal cornered they want to fight and those powerful legs and necks are something to be wary of. A single kick from a giraffe can kill a lion, and fighting males use their necks as pugil sticks.
Once they had captured around 20 of them, they were ready to be transported.
A happy accident – on our last day our jeep broke down in Murchison Falls and we were delayed in heading back to Kampala – meant that we saw the actual transportation. A bevvy of giraffes crossing the Nile!
We could see the trailers full of necks and trees and also humans as they slowly made their way across and gently driven onto the shore and beyond. Surprisingly the giraffes did not seem disturbed and were calmly browsing on the leaves supplied to them. A wonderful sight and hope for conservation!
There was an amazing community feel and excitement with locals and school children invited out to see what was happening and learn about conservation efforts on their doorstep.
It’s also worth mentioning the project leader in charge of the translocation featured within the documentary – Dr Julien Hennessey. Someone who has dedicated the last 20 years to conservation efforts and setting an example to his children – a true hero!
UWA will be monitoring the tagged giraffes in their new home and ensuring the welfare of the herd as well as the other wildlife they work hard to protect.
The translocation was the subject of a BBC documentary ‘Natural World’ now available via IPlayer until 21st July 2016 (which may be viewable depending on where you are located in the world). See the preview here:
References and Further Reading
 Africa’s Giraffe Conservation Status and Distribution (by the Intl Giraffe Conservation Foundation)
 Rinderpest: the Veterinary Perspective on Eradication. Roeder, P., Mariner, J., & Kock, R. (2013)
 Rinderpest Surveillance in Uganda National Parks 1998–2003. Rutebarika, C.S., & al. From The IUCN Species Survival Commission (2003)
 Giraffes will be translocated to Lake Mburo National Park (by UWA)
 Giraffes under Threat: Populations Down 40 Percent in Just 15 Years. Platt, J.R (2014)
by Sharan Bahra
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