By Hannah Campbell

World Giraffe Day is celebrated annually on June 21st in order to raise support and create awareness of the challenges giraffes face in the wild.

The population of reticulated giraffe, one of the most iconic mammals on the planet, has declined by over 50% over the past 30 years – from 36,000 to just around 15,000 today. Poaching, loss of habitat, and land degradation are all pushing the giraffe toward an ominously named “silent extinction.”

A reticulated giraffe at Loisaba. Photo © Ami Vitali.

In 2016, San Diego Zoo Global launched a collaborative community-lead conservation effort in northern Kenya to help save the reticulated giraffe species from extinction. Work is currently focused at two sites: Loisaba Conservancy and Namunyak Wildlife Conservancy, where giraffe conservation research and community engagement programmes are conducted by Twiga Walinzi (which means giraffe guards in Swahili). The Twiga Walinzi all come from the local community, and conduct all the field research to study giraffe.

We asked Symon Masiaine, the Twiga Walinzi Conservation Coordinator, to tell us more:

Symon Masiaine, Twiga Walinzi conservation Coordinator. © Ami Vitali.

 

What are the main challenges reticulated giraffes face in northern Kenya?

“One of the main challenges here in Kenya is loss of suitable habitat due to clearing of land for agriculture, tree cutting for firewood and building, and infrastructure development. In addition, giraffe are still poached for meat, bones (which are burnt and the ashes used as medicine) and their tails (used as fly swats and the hairs for bracelets). ”

 

What data are the Twiga Walinzi collecting?

“The Twiga Walinzi carry out photo monitoring, camera trap placement, giraffe satellite collaring, human dimension surveys, school education visits and community awareness and engagement.

“Photo monitoring is carried out in order to gather systematic geo-located images of giraffe that can assist us in identifying, counting and tracking giraffe movements. Placement of camera traps across our study types also contributes to this, with over 1 million images captured so far.

Camera trap photo. © SDZG.

“In order to explore the movements of giraffes further, solar-powered GPS tracking devices have been fitted to reticulated giraffes in the study area. This has given us insights into giraffe movements in the region and utilization of different areas and habitats, what factors cause giraffe to move and whether giraffes move over long distances or stay localised (read more here).

“The team also spends time with local community members and school children in order to understand more about their relationships and interactions with giraffes and other wildlife species, as well as to spread knowledge of important conservation topics and learn about the work of the Twiga Walinzi. Perceptions are documented with surveys in order to help us understand and assess any changes in attitudes and beliefs in the communities who share their space with giraffes over time.

Lexson Larpei (Twiga Walinzi) teaching local school children about giraffes.

 

Why are the Twiga Walinzi Important?

“The Twiga Walinzi are a team of 17 researchers who are leading the work on the ground with pastoralists and communities to spread awareness about giraffes and build support for the protection of the tallest animal on earth. It is scientifically proven that 95% of the 15,000 reticulated giraffes left in the wild live outside formal protected areas – largely on pastoral land. The Twiga Walinzi is important as it focuses work outside of protected areas where people live side by side with giraffes.”

Reticulated giraffes at Loisaba. Photo © Taro Croze.

 

How do you identify individuals?

“Giraffe are recognised using spot patterns on their skin. No two giraffes have the exact same spot pattern, just like no one else has your fingerprints. At Twiga Walinzi, we started identifying giraffe using the pattern manually with our eyes, but in 2019 a pattern recognition software was launched called GiraffeSpotter. The software uses advanced coat pattern recognition technology to recognise individual giraffes and creates a database of sightings. This innovative technology allows researchers, as well as citizen scientists, to monitor giraffe populations throughout Africa and track individual movements.”

Camera trap photo. © SDZG.

 

Tell us about your best experience in the field.

“It was a one of the community survey days in Koija group ranch, going from one village to the next to gather information about giraffes. We met with one mama who identified us by name and said hello to both me and Lexson (another Twiga Walinzi). She gave us seats and started preparing tea for us, and started talking about the great job we as a project are doing in the community. She explained how valuable it was that we hold regular meetings with the communities to update everyone on the project, and how she loved that we took the time to educate school students about the conservation of giraffe and other wildlife in the community. She went on to tell us that her son (year 6) teaches them about the species of giraffe that are found in Kenya, their adaptations to the environment and the food web in the African savanna. She asked us to continue to educate the children and the community about conservation because wildlife and pastoralists need to live side by side, and thanked us for the work we are doing. I was so thrilled by the story and I saw that we are making an impact in the community through the community engagement meetings and school clubs visits.”

 

What are the Twiga Walinzi doing for world giraffe day?

“We are spreading the following message to community members and students in northern Kenya:

  1. Be the voice for giraffe in the communities.
  2. Say no to giraffe poaching in your communities.
  3. Say no to giraffe trade and trafficking.
  4. Share the knowledge you learn to your friends, family members and community.
  5. Stand tall for the giraffe!

Happy World Giraffe Day 2020!

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