Spotting Giraffe Extinction Before It’s Too Late

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Zoo InternQuest is a seven-week career exploration program for San Diego County high school juniors and seniors. Students have the unique opportunity to meet professionals working for the San Diego Zoo, Safari Park, and Institute for Conservation Research, learn about their jobs, then blog about their experience online. Follow their adventures here on the Zoo’s website!

It would be pretty safe to say that most of us know what giraffes are. They’re pretty hard to miss, and they hold a special place in our hearts as one of the iconic African plains animals. The irony? We know very little about them. Giraffes are a surprisingly unstudied species. We’re not sure how they communicate, why they fight, or where they travel. We’re not even sure how many subspecies there are, with estimates ranging from six types to nine.

Community-based Conservation Ecologist David O’Connor works with just one subspecies, the reticulated giraffe. When he started his field work, he was just a researcher, following and recording the giraffes’ movements and taking notes of their social patterns. He reevaluated the purpose of his study when he walked into neck snare – a trap set by poachers to kill giraffes. When he got out of the trap, he decided he wanted to focus on giraffe conservation instead of species research.

Upon investigation, he found that the outlook for wild giraffes was grim. Giraffes are being poached for their meat and parts, even in protected areas. Eleven giraffes are killed every day. At this rate, they will be extinct in the wild by 2020. They are already gone from seven countries where they used to roam.

Mr. O’Connor is working hard to change their fate, spending several months every year in northern Kenya to conserve giraffes in their natural habitat. His official work partners include the Northern Rangelands Trust and the Giraffe Center in Nairobi, but he says that his most indispensable allies are the native Samburu peoples. The Samburu are pastoralists, which means that they graze their animals out on open land with no fences or boundaries. The livestock and the people live with the wildlife; it is not uncommon for a herd of domestic goats to be grazing with a herd of giraffes, zebras, or even elephants. This huge overlap between people and animal means that the support of local communities is key to successfully saving a species.

A big part of Mr. O’Connor’s work now is surveying the Kenyan people. By understanding native people’s thoughts about giraffes, he hopes to better predict and affect their behaviors towards the species. The first step of this process is learning why there is a demand for a product like giraffe meat. This is the root of the problem. Once this is understood, Mr. O’Connor can figure out how to combat or eliminate the demand.

What Mr. O’Connor has found is that the Samburu, and other locals, have very positive feelings about giraffes. They like seeing the beautiful creatures out on the plains. But some of these people are still poachers. Why? As it turns out, none of the poachers want to be killing giraffes, they just need a job with a stable income to support their families. Knowing this, giraffe conservation centers and national parks are able to reach out to some of the poachers and employ them. With their new jobs, the poachers do exactly the opposite of what they did initially; they protect giraffes and educate others as to why poaching is not the way to go, and why giraffes are worth much more alive than dead.

In addition to his surveying, Mr. O’Connor works closely with others who are dedicated to giraffe conservation in Kenya. There is extensive research sharing and education of the public to help spread an understanding of giraffes.

Mr. O’Connor is also able to continue researching the giraffes, like he had originally set out to do. His current project investigates the effects of Samburu livestock on giraffe feeding grounds. Many of the Samburu are making the switch from cattle herding to camel herding because of terrible droughts, and Mr. O’Connor is looking to see if the camels have any overlap with giraffe browsing range. He collects most of his data through vehicle based surveys, following the giraffes across the savannahs to learn about where and what they eat.

In the future, Mr. O’Connor would like to hire locals to help with field work, use camera traps to better track down the elusive giraffes, and use DNA analysis to pin down exactly the number of giraffe subspecies. Another hope for the future is that all these conservation efforts will pay off, and the giraffe will be brought back from the brink of extinction. With the help of the native people, it looks like gentle giants will be able to stay an icon of the African plains for many years to come.

Naomi, Conservation Team
Week Five, Fall 2015