East Africa: Saving Rothschild’s, the Friendly Giant

by Oct 25, 2010Wildlife News

Nairobi — East Africa is acclaimed as the cradle of humanity. Now the region could claim yet another honour — the epicentre of the giraffe population of the world.

In particular, Kenya takes pride of place as the only country in the world where three of the nine giraffe sub-species are found — the Maasai, the Reticulated and the Rothschild’s.

Of the three, the Rothschild’s is classified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as endangered, and could soon become extinct in the wild.

There are only 650 such giraffes in the wild today. Ten per cent of them are in Soysambu Conservancy on the shores of Lake Elmenteita in the Great Rift Valley.

Until recently, giraffes were common in Kenya — and in most of Africa. But a rapid increase in human population, coupled with habitat loss and an increase in the bushmeat trade, has seen the world’s tallest mammal seek refuge in protected areas.

Over the past 10 years, there has been a 30 per cent decline in giraffe population. The figure is set to increase. This is the reason research and conservation are important in safeguarding the world’s tallest animal.

The Rothschild’s giraffe fared the worst after Kenya’s Independence in 1963. Huge ranches in western Kenya around Soi were subdivided and sold, leaving the Rothschild’s giraffe with no habitat. The giraffe was endemic there.

The Maasai giraffe covers a larger range south of the Equator, while the Reticulated giraffe is found in the drylands of the north.

Both the Reticulated giraffe of northern Kenya and the Masaai giraffe of southern Kenya are facing challenges, too. Loss of habitat is widespread, hence the decline in their populations.

Although giraffes have no competition for food resources with other browsers, (they can reach 20 feet high), very few are found outside protected areas due to human-wildlife conflict.

Only an adult elephant could possibly compete for food with a giraffe, but even then it would have to stand on its hind legs and reach up with its trunk.

The most common reason for the drop in giraffe numbers is pressure from farming and modern land practices. Poaching is also common in northern Kenya, where the graceful giants are killed for their meat and hide.

What mainly differentiates a Rothschild’s giraffe from other giraffe species is that the males have five “horns” jutting out of the head, while their legs, below the knees, are white, making them look as if they are wearing white stockings.

The species could very easily have been wiped out but for the fact that a breeding herd was brought to Nairobi’s Giraffe Centre by Betty Leslie-Melville and her late husband, Jock.

Many successful generations have since been sired at the acacia-forested grove on the foothills of the Ngong Hills and subsequently translocated to other sanctuaries in Kenya.

In antiquity, the most famous sketches of the giraffe are the life size rock-art frescos of Dabous, Niger, carved at the top of a large outcrop of the Dabous river bed. They are 6,000 to 7,000 years old.

In the early 1400, the Muslim Chinese scholar, Zheng He, visited East Africa’s shores and bought a giraffe, with which he sailed back to China. The Chinese named the animal qiln (ch’I-lin) believing it attracted good luck.

A famous painting by Shen Du (1357-1434), who was also a poet in the Chinese court, is of a giraffe. Accompanying it is a poem:

“In the corner of the western seas, in the stagnant waters of a great morass, Truly was produced a qilin, whose shape was as high as 15 feet.

“With the body of a deer and the tail of an ox, and a fleshy, boneless horn, With luminous spots like a red cloud or purple mist. Its hoofs do not tread on living beings and in its wanderings it carefully selects its ground.

“It walks in stately fashion and in its every motion it observes a rhythm, Its harmonious voice sounds like a bell or a musical tube. Gentle is this animal, that has in antiquity been seen but once, The manifestation of its divine spirit rises up to heaven’s abode.”

The Rothschild’s researched

Because the giraffe was so common in Africa and in zoos across the globe, it seemed like most people knew a lot about it — besides the fact that it is the tallest animal on land and has the longest neck and legs. It can easily cover five metres in one stride.

But when Zoe Muller of the University of Bristol, UK, started looking around for a research topic, she discovered that giraffes are hugely understudied in the wild, unlike other African mammals.

“So I thought it was about time something was done about that,” says Muller. “Furthermore, the giraffes were endangered, with less than 650 left in the wild.”

Growing up in the UK, Muller has always been fascinated by giraffes. “They are so unusual. If you have not seen them in the wild, you wouldn’t believe such graceful creatures exist,” he says.

In November 2009, Muller moved to Soysambu conservancy in Kenya to begin a four-year project on the giraffe — the first ever scientific assessment.

“Soysambu is a safe haven for a large population of the giraffe. Of the 650 left in the wild, 60 are at Soysambu,” she says.

On a typical day, Muller is out in the field at sunrise and observes the giraffes until lunchtime. She returns yet again to the field in the afternoon and spends the evenings at Soysambu Research Centre inputting the data into the computer.

Meanwhile, the giraffes continue browsing on their favourite meal, the soft leaves of the acacia tree, stripping them off with their blue-black tongues. The tongues are about 25 inches long.

Giraffes are some of the most serene animals in the world, “preferring a slow pace and a laid back life,” says Muller.

Muller has interesting information on the browsers.

“Recent genetic work has demonstrated that the giraffe separated genetically from other giraffe sub-species around 0.27 million years ago.

“This divergence has caused them to branch off on a different evolutionary tract. The giraffe has not been interbreeding with other giraffe sub-species for some time now. It has possibly become so different as to warrant being classified as a new giraffe species,” she says.

“Regardless of taxonomic classification, however, the giraffes are so isolated and few that priority must be placed on conservation.

“Currently, the giraffe are breeding and reproducing well, but their numbers are limited by the habitat. All giraffes are confined to enclosed conservation areas, effectively putting a limit on their reproductive. If new areas could be secured for them, they would grow their numbers. Also, a confined population has the inherent danger of inbreeding.”

Muller adds: “Translocating means keeping tabs on each animal so as to avoid in breeding. In-breeding produces weaker offsprings and reduces the genetic diversity. To implement effective conservation strategies and identify new habitats, we must know as much as possible about these giraffes — their ecology, behaviour and habitat requirements..”

The importance of Soysambu

The 48,000-acre Soysambu conservancy lies in an enclave, with Lake Elmenteita to the east and Lake Nakuru to the west.

Both these lakes are Ramsar sites, that is wetlands of international importance. To the south are volcanoes of Ol Doinyo Eburru and to the north is the Menengai crater.

The islands of Lake Elmenteita are the only breeding ground of the Great White pelican in East Africa.The first Lord Delamere settled in Soysambu in 1906, pioneering large-scale farming in the area. Soysambu means “place of the bridled rock” in Maasai.

Lake Elmenteita has now been legally designated as a wildlife sanctuary. Forestry and Wildlife Minister Noah Wekesa invoked the Wildlife Act Cap 376 to gazette the lake as a protected area in Gazette Notice 8077, dated July 6, this year.

The gazetted area covers 2533.9 hectares, 40 km southeast of Nakuru Town.The 18-km square soda lake, off the Nairobi-Nakuru highway is a popular destination for birding enthusiasts. It hosts hundreds of thousands of flamingos, pelicans, crested grebe and many other birds.

The reed beds nearby are fishing grounds for night herons and pelicans. The lake and Soysambu Conservancy have large herds of buffalo, waterbuck, eland, zebra, giraffe, gazelle and other game.

Elmenteita is from the Masaai word muteita, meaning “dusty place”.The gazettement of Lake Elmenteita as a wildlife sanctuary is key to nomination of the Rift Valley lakes as World Heritage Sites by the Paris-based United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation.The 193-member Unesco is a specialised agency of the United Nations, established on November 16 1945, to contribute to peace and security by promoting international collaboration through education, science and culture.

For more information, visit www.girafferesearch.com