Years ago when I first moved to Namibia to start my PhD on the black-faced impala at the age of about 21, a couple of Aussies and a German who were working there at the Desert Research Foundation of Namibia adopted me and helped me find my feet in this unique desert land where I didn’t know a soul. The war vet invasions had just started in Zimbabwe, and, well, if you’ve read my first book “Dry Water” you’ll know the rest of the story! Over a decade later, two of my early rescuers, fellow Aussie Dr Julian Fennessy and his wife, German Steph Fennessy, are living in Windhoek and raising their two kids in Namibia whilst also working on giraffe conservation across the continent. Together Julian and Steph started and run the Giraffe Conservation Foundation, the world’s first and only organisation dedicated to giraffe conservation in the wild.
Julian is a true giraffe guru. He is the founder and co-chair of the IUCN SSC Giraffe and Okapi Specialist Group and completed his PhD on Namibia’s desert-dwelling giraffes. You won’t meet a couple more dedicated to the conservation of giraffes in the wild. There are few species more iconic and representative of Africa than giraffes, and I’ve seen them pretty much everywhere I’ve ever travelled in Africa, so why are folks like Julian and Steph worried about their future?
How many species and subspecies of giraffes are there? And what countries are they found in?
What is the status of giraffes in the wild? Should we be concerned about them becoming extinct?
As a species, giraffe are currently listed as ‘Least Concern’ on the IUCN Red List – however, this is more as a result of no recent assessment being undertaken on them. In 2008 and 2010 the West African (G. c. peralta) and Rothschild’s (G. c. rothschildi) subspecies of giraffe were listed as ‘Endangered’ – based on the work of GCF, and currently the species and all subspecies are being assessed by the Specialist Group – the first-ever detailed assessment for giraffe and we hope to complete this by early 2016. We obviously feel that giraffe need more attention locally and internationally as – and why? West African giraffe number less than 400 in the wild, Rothschild’s giraffe approx 1,100 and Kordofan giraffe less than 2,000 individuals. Few know that giraffe number less than 80,000 in the wild (less than 5 times the amount of African elephant) and have dropped greater than 40% in the last 15 years alone!
Tell us more about the threats to giraffes and what can be done about them. Specifically can you tell us what GCF is working on to conserve giraffes in the wild?
When we set up GCF in 2009 we realised that no one was giving giraffe any real attention – the Forgotten Giant! Everyone assumed that giraffe are everywhere – and on some safaris it feels like that – however, the more and more we look into the situation the more precarious the situation is. The usual suspects – habitat loss and fragmentation, combined with human population growth and demand for increased resources and agricultural land is big. Combine this with illegal hunting (poaching) and giraffe are seriously being threatened across much of Central and northern East Africa. Over the last few years GCF realised it cannot do everything itself and as such has built (and keeps on doing so) a network of conservation partners across areas to help save giraffe. Whether it is supporting de-snaring initiatives and monitoring in Zambia or Uganda, assisting to draft the first-ever national giraffe strategies in Niger and Kenya, or understanding giraffe skin disease across the continent…and much more, GCF is looking at initiatives based on partnerships and collaborations – we can only truly find solutions by working together.
What started your passion for giraffes? And what keeps you going now?
Working in north-west Namibia on a project looking at the interactions between people, water, livestock and wildlife, l was keen to become an elephant researcher – who wouldn’t?! After looking at giraffe in the desert, walking up, down and around one of the most arid environments and in the oldest desert in the world – l was amazed to read the lack of work done on giraffe across the continent. Beyond surprising. So from there l thought l can’t be wrong and although l worked for the next 15 years, spare time and holidays spent dedicated to finding out more about giraffe, supporting government and NGO giraffe initiatives, and importantly sharing as much information as possible about giraffe to the world.
What’s the most fascinating experience you’ve ever had with a giraffe? Or is there more than one?!
Every experience with giraffe has been amazing. Planning and undertaking the first-ever GPS satellite collaring of giraffe in northwest Namibia was special whilst recently traveling to Garamba NP in the DRC to provide advice on how to save the last 30-40 giraffe in the country really emphasises why we all do conservation. Unfortunately l do not get to spend day-to-day close to giraffe like our zookeeper colleagues, but the knowledge that giraffe still live across the continent and in many areas in and amongst people is even more special than a personal experience.
What can people do to help giraffe conservation in the wild?
Those lucky enough to be joining me on my safari to Namibia in September this year will get to spend some time with Julian as he’ll be meeting us in Windhoek and giving us a talk about giraffes and his work. To register your interest in my conservation-focused safaris in Africa, please drop me a line here. My 2015 Namibian safari is full, but I’m currently filling a safari for North West Namibia in May 2016 that includes these dramatic landscapes where Julian works, so contact me if you’d like to join. To make a donation to the important work of the Giraffe Conservation Foundation, click here.