High & Dry

By Mike Bona

Studying giraffes in the world’s oldest desert may be the key to their survival

Giraffe populations have decreased by 40 percent in the last 30 years. There are fewer than 100,000 individuals left—far less than the number of African elephants (approximately 450,000). These statistics are alarming—and what’s more alarming is that few people are aware of this population decline. The giraffe’s status in the wild was recently downgraded from “least concern” to “vulnerable” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). That’s one step closer to endangered. The lack of public perception of their true plight is why giraffes are facing what legendary conservationist Sir David Attenborough called in 2016 a “silent extinction.”

Despite receiving only two inches of rainfall annually, the northwest Namib Desert supports numerous species of wildlife, including Angolan giraffes. Though well adapted to their harsh environment, these desert dwellers are threatened by environmental degradation and other factors. The Giraffe Conservation Foundation’s Northwest Namibia Programme focuses on monitoring and supporting long-term conservation of giraffe in this region.

All giraffes today are grouped into a single species (Giraffa camelopardalis), but recent genetic studies show there may be as many as four distinct giraffe species. If these four species gain recognition by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), most giraffes would be classified as endangered—or perhaps even critically endangered.

Luckily for giraffes, the Giraffe Conservation Foundation (GCF) is making great strides toward reversing this trend. Founded nearly 15 years ago, GCF is the only non-governmental organization focused solely on giraffe conservation. They work in 14 of the 21 countries inhabited by giraffes.

In September 2017, thanks to a grant from the Ornato Animal Keeper Advanced Studies Fund, I had the good fortune to travel to Namibia, Africa, to participate in the GCF’s longest running project.

Found in the northwest Namib Desert—the oldest desert in the world—are the Angolan giraffes, a subspecies of the southern giraffe. Here there are an estimated 13,000 individuals surviving in an environment where you wouldn’t expect to find much life at all, let alone megafauna such as giraffes, zebras, rhinos, and even elephants. This region averages only 50 millimeters (less than two inches) of rainfall annually. Life is dependent on the riverbeds that run through the deserts. Dry for the majority of the year, it is the underground water supply that allows the trees and other vegetation to thrive here. This is what these animals depend upon for their survival.

Animal keepers from three continents joined the GCF team to conduct field research in the Namib Desert.

Our task on this expedition was to take a census of the giraffes in the research area near Namibia’s Skeleton Coast, a region totaling about 4,470 square miles. Each day, we would venture out to look for groups of giraffes. They weren’t too difficult to find, since they tend to congregate near the riverbeds. Once we located a group, we would record the number of individuals, their GPS location, and their behavior. If giraffes were browsing (eating foliage), we would take note of what type of tree they were browsing on.

During the 10 days we spent out in the field, we were able to identify 145 individuals. There are approximately 300 giraffes known to inhabit this research area, and most have been catalogued and identified by their spot patterns. When a giraffe is spotted that hasn’t previously been observed by a researcher, it is added to the catalogue.

Another one of our tasks was to collect DNA samples from as many giraffes as possible. This involved locating a giraffe and identifying it to see whether its DNA had previously been collected. If not, we would dart the giraffe using a specialized device that grabs a small tissue sample from the giraffe’s skin. The dart immediately pops out and falls to the ground for us to retrieve.

A cell phone-sized GPS unit has just been fitted onto one of the giraffe's ossicones (the horn-like structures atop a giraffe's head)

The samples are sent to GCF’s partners at the Senckenberg Institute in Frankfurt, where researchers are working on assembling a genetic pedigree of the entire giraffe population in this area. With this information they will be able to determine the relationships between each of the giraffes. This data will be useful toward gaining a better understanding of giraffe social networks.

For me, the highlight of the trip was placing GPS (global positioning system) monitors on seven giraffes in this region. GPS data allows researchers to track giraffes and analyze their patterns of movement. Over the years, the tracking devices used on giraffes had evolved from a box attached to massive straps that were wrapped around the animal’s shoulders and back, to smaller units strapped around the head, which were still cumbersome and would rub against the animals’ skin. On this expedition, we were thrilled to be using the latest technology—solar-powered GPS units about the size of a cell phone, which attach to one of the giraffe’s ossicones. (Ossicones are the horns on top of the giraffe’s head. They are bone covered with skin and hair.)

Before we could place the devices, the giraffes had to be darted with a sedative. Every time the team immobilizes a giraffe, the animal’s safety is the number-one priority. In most cases, the sedative prescribed by the project’s veterinarian is sufficient for the giraffe to go down on its own. However, in a few instances, the team had to intervene to help the animal to the ground. We did this by positioning ourselves in front of the moving giraffe and stretching out a rope to wrap around its legs (imagine Luke Skywalker wrapping the cable around the AT-AT walker in The Empire Strikes Back). I am very pleased to say that all seven units were attached without any injuries sustained by the giraffes. The team members, on the other hand, suffered our fair share of scrapes and bruises—but that’s all part of conservation.

The team works quickly to attach a GPS unit and obtain measurements

The information collected from these GPS units will provide valuable insights into giraffe movement patterns and allow GCF researchers to analyze where (and hopefully why) giraffes move—hourly, daily, seasonally, and annually. This key information will help to deepen our understanding of how giraffes use their environment in Namibia. It will also be interesting to see how the movement of these giraffes in the desert compares to giraffe populations in other parts of Africa, where there is typically a wider variety of food and water sources.

Knowledge gained from field research is shared with local communities and used to develop conservation strategies. For the Angolan giraffe and the other species that inhabit this arid region, a question of growing concern is how climate change will affect future availability of food resources.

This trip not only gave me firsthand experience with field conservation but also allowed me to meet and work with some amazing people. Julian Fennessy, the executive director of GCF, has been a friend of mine for eight years. It was a thrill to finally get to work with him out in his element in the Namibian desert. The project’s veterinarian, Dr. Pete Morkel, is a very well-respected conservation vet who works throughout Africa. He has a wealth of knowledge and great stories. Conservationist Ivan Carter, the host of Carter’s W.A.R. on the Outdoor Channel, has a lifetime of experience living with wildlife in the African bush and a keen understanding of animal behavior. Lars Markgren, part of the team that created the hit mobile game Candy Crush, helped fund the expedition I took part in. I also had the opportunity to work with animal keepers from Australia, the United Kingdom, and the Como Park Zoo in Minnesota. The whole team got along great, and we still keep in touch with each other.

This was certainly the adventure of a lifetime for me, and I hope to return again soon to do what I can to help prevent these magnificent giants from going “silently” extinct. 🦒

The Ornato Grant enables the Zoo's animal care staff to broaden their understanding of the species they care for—and to build connections with conservationists working out in the field. Bona (shown bonding with a newborn giraffe at the Zoo in 2015) applied his extensive zoo experience to the field project.

This article originally ran in the Spring 2018 issue of Zoo View, the award-winning quarterly magazine of the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association. A subscription is complimentary with any level of membership.