Alex Rose-Innes

Teams from Kenya’s Wildlife Service (KWS) and the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT) co-ordinated a first-of-its kind rescue operation to save eight giraffes from the flooded Longicharo Island in Western Kenya. It would take months to save all eight animals. So far, the two most in need of evacuation had safely arrived at their destination.

The conservation teams used a specially adapted steel and plastic barge to float the giraffes to a nearby nature preserve in Raku, a wildlife conservancy especially built by the local community for animal rescues.

These long-necked animals are part of a group sent to the Kenyan Rift Valley a decade ago as part of the country’s anti-poaching protection efforts. At the time, the giraffe population had decreased dramatically and it was hoped that in a tranquil environment, breeding would start again and numbers would increase.

But these animals are not out of danger yet as the island to which they had originally been relocated to, is steadily shrinking because of increased rainfall, which it is believed could be as a result of climate change.

With the population of Africa’s giraffes continuing to decline over the last few decades due to habitat loss and poaching, some are considered at higher risk of extinction than others such as the Rothschild’s giraffe. Not so long ago, these tall land mammals roamed the entire western Rift Valley in Kenya, but today, there are only 3 000 left on the African continent. Less than 2 000 are still living in the wild with Kenya’s giraffe population down to a mere 800. The African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) estimates that during the last 30 years, numbers had decreased by 40%.

With the continued poaching of elephants and rhinos being highlighted in the media, the slaughter of Africa’s giraffes did not raise the same concern and conservation efforts. The most recent population and distribution assessments of certain of the subspecies painted a grim picture.

Kordofan and Nubian giraffes were only recently upgraded to critically endangered status on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. The census showed that of these two sub-species, there are only 4,650 mature individuals left. The reticulated giraffe, one of Kenya’s signature wildlife species and tourist attractions in the north, is now considered endangered as well. The AWF said in their latest report that it was found that the Maasai and Rothschild giraffes, which make up the remainder of Kenya’s total giraffe population, had declined by almost 70% since the 1970’s.

The need for arable land and infrastructure development had proved to be extremely detrimental for the Maasai giraffes across central and southern Kenya and northern Tanzania. As human settlements continue to grow in these once wildlife-rich areas, competition for resources makes it increasingly difficult to conserve wildlife populations.

Not only are rangeland conditions shifting due to climate change, human activities such as cattle overgrazing and charcoal burning are also depleting the ecological integrity of the Maasai giraffe’s historical habitat. At the same time, local markets for bush meat and giraffe parts are increasing and poaching is emerging as a serious threat to the tallest land mammal.

What can be done? still believes that education is the most important to understand how and why these animals should be preserved. It also called on African governments to support sustainable agriculture and settlement practices near giraffe habitats. Other initiatives include reforesting key areas with acacia trees, the main food sources of these tall mammals and to stop poaching giraffes for their tails, considered to be status symbols.

Aiswa, a female giraffe was one of the first two to be rescued. (Image: KWS)