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Current estimates are that over the past 20 years the reticulated giraffe population has declined by over 70%, from 36,000 to less than 9,000 today. It is thought the main drivers behind the decline are habitat loss and fragmentation, land degradation, and poaching. However, relatively little is known about reticulated giraffe movements, or their ecology.

Young life © Isabelle Parsons

To help address this, in May 2016 a collaborative giraffe conservation initiative was launched between: The Giraffe Conservation Foundation, The Northern Rangelands Trust, Loisaba Conservancy, Namunyak Wildlife Conservation Trust, The Nature Conservancy and San Diego Zoo Global. Beginning with a two-year pilot project centered on two sites (Loisaba Conservancy and Namunyak).

The project is a community-led conservation and research effort that uses both social and ecological methods to help sustainably preserve the reticulated giraffe species in the wild. At Loisaba Symon Masaine is the Head Researcher, he is currently studying at the University of Michigan under the MasterCard Scholarship. Whilst he is away Lexson Larpei, the Assistant Researcher is managing the project.

Silhouette at sunset © Amos Chege

In June 2017 seven reticulated giraffe were fitted with GPS satellite tracker units on Loisaba Conservancy. These units made by Savannah Tracking are solar powered and are attached to giraffe’s ossicones. The data collected from these units will allow greater insights into giraffe movements in the region, especially wet season-dry season movements, and utilization of different areas/habitats, space requirements. It also has the potential for the movement data to inform decisions around future infrastructure and settlement decisions. A further 25 GPS units will be fitted with the Kenya Wildlife Service in September 2018 across Loisaba Conservancy, Mpala Research Centre, Buliqo Bulesa Conservancy, Melako Conservancy and Leparua Conservancy. These units will provide insights into numerous localized questions, e.g. the dynamics of giraffe between Leparua and Lewa/Borana, where do the giraffe on Biliqo and Melako go?

In conjunction to the GPS data, camera traps are deployed across the conservancy to help track and identify giraffe. A total of 135 cameras traps have been deployed creating over one million images – all these images need analyzing! Here is how you can help: https://bit.ly/2IDzHih

The final essential element to this project is gauging human perceptions and attitudes towards giraffes and poaching. Consequently, over 400 interviews have been conducted in Kirimon, Ol Donyiro, Koija, P&D, KMC and Ilmotiok producing startling results. It is estimated that giraffe part and product use is at 30% within these communities and knowledge on giraffe species, ranges, and population was found to be very low. Through education and outreach within these communities, the project aims to reduce that number while also raising awareness of the overall decline and building community pride in the uniqueness of northern Kenya’s giraffe species.

A lovely old bull with very unique markings © Isabelle Parsons

A mother and cub relax around the remains of a large male impala. Only meters away, a male and female leopard were mating in thick shrub © Nicholas Pilfold

With some notable exceptions (e.g. lions, hyenas, wild dogs) most large African carnivores live a solitary existence. They hunt for food, raise young, and fend off rivals all on their own. This is particularly true for the species that I research at Loisaba Conservancy: the African leopard.

It is already a rare sight when more than one leopard is found in the same location, even more so with multiple individuals. But it does happen. The circumstances for why it happens can be as interesting as the event itself.

This past February, I had the chance to experience a leopard congregation (aka “a leap”) around a kill site. A large male impala had been killed by an equally large male leopard, and once he had his fill, other leopards moved in for leftovers. In many cases, this tolerance for sharing food would not have been allowed by a dominant male still at the kill site; but in this circumstance, he was distracted by a female looking for a mate.

An adult female looks back towards the direction of her departing male mate © Nicholas Pilfold

While the male consorted with the female within the privacy of some dense shrub, a mother and cub moved in on the leftovers. They were extremely relaxed around the kill, recognizing that the adult male was not a threat. Four leopards in a such a tight setting was a surprise and was only surpassed when the next morning a fifth leopard showed up to work on some of the last scraps high in a Boscia tree. The fact that the fifth leopard showed up so quickly likely meant she was in the vicinity when the kill happened the day before.

While leopards spend much of their lives in solitude, events like these remind us of their capacity for sociality in the right setting.

By: Nicholas Pilfold, Ph.D., San Diego Zoo Global