Conserving The Giraffe Through Tourism

Giraffe gets up after its GPS collar is attached. Photo: Le Roux van Schalkwyk

Conserving The Giraffe Through Tourism

01 October 2018 | Tourism

Applying innovative ideas, the tourism sector can have a much larger impact than only contributing towards the socio-economic development of a country; instead it can also positively contribute to the conservation effort itself.

Le Roux van Schalkwyk

Squeezed on the back of a Land Cruiser with six other people, our eyes are fixed on a giraffe staring back at us with a measure of uncertainty; and rightly so. The air is thick with anticipation as we wait for the dart gun to be fired from the passenger seat of the vehicle. Eventually the shot rings out and the dart hits the giraffe with a dull thud as the needle penetrates and unloads the tranquiliser into the unsuspecting animal. It reacts to the shot in a state of disbelief and after giving just a few steps, it stops again and stares back at us. Everyone is dead quiet. I can feel my heart racing. As if possessed the giraffe suddenly starts running over the gravel plain. Simultaneously the engine roars to life and we give chase, trying to get ahead in order to cut it off and prevent it from hurting itself.

Flying over the uneven ground, we hold on as best as we can so as to not fall off the back of the vehicle. As we get ahead of the giraffe the vehicle draws to a stop and we are signalled to fly off the loading bay. As we charge this enormous animal which is bounding at full speed towards us, we hold and spread a rope in a long line. As soon as the giraffe runs into the rope we run along with the animal holding onto the rope with everything we have got. Once ready, the two teams holding onto the end of the rope start crossing behind the animal in the process tripping the animal, which falls to the ground. As it hits the ground we pile onto the long neck to keep the giraffe from getting back up with the veterinarian already preparing to inject the antidote into its neck. I can’t help but feel sorry for this suddenly strange looking animal, lying immobilised on the ground. But it is a brief moment of discomfort which it needs to endure in order to have it fitted with a solar powered GPS satellite unit (Ossi-Unit). By fitting the device it allows conservationists to study this animal and other tagged giraffes to ensure their survival.

We are in the Hoarusib River close to Purros as part of a unique initiative that combines conservation and tourism. The Giraffe Conservation Fund (GCF) has partnered with Ultimate Safaris to offer its guests the opportunity to join field biologists of GCF in tracking and tagging giraffes with GPS’s in the wild.

According to Dr Julian Fennessy, co-founder and co-director of GCF, the giraffe is not only extremely iconic, but truly African as it is found on no other continent than ours. When he started his research in north-west Namibia in the late nineties, very little was known about giraffes with only a few studies having been conducted up to that date. “Lack of information limits what you can do to conserve and manage giraffes and all of this has led to an estimated decline of 40% of its population across the continent over the past 30 years. Therefore it is important to do this kind of research” explains Dr Fennessy.

Even though the giraffe population of Namibia is thriving, currently making up more than 10% of the world’s population, it is important to use the lessons learned here in other countries, where the numbers are dwindling. Giraffes are found in 21 countries across the continent and the GCF is active in 14 of these with the main focus currently turned to East Africa. Local conservation efforts include establishing the population sizes and finding out what threats these animals are exposed to, so as to facilitate the reintroduction of giraffes into areas, where they naturally occurred before. GCF also helps in developing national strategies by providing technical support and lobbying to secure government buy-in.

Conservation and Tourism Working Together

According to the operations manager of Ultimate Safaris, Jason Nott, the tour operator wanted to do more than just take part in the economic activities related to tourism, for which reason the organisation has paired up with conservation organisations, one of them being the GCF. “We wanted guests to experience and feel part of conservation efforts on the ground, while minimizing the disruption of the good work the GCF team does. It is very important for us as tour operators to have a positive impact on conservation and this is a great way for us to not only do this, but educate our guests while offering them the experience of a lifetime,” says Nott. Included in the fees payable for the guests’ safari-package, is a donation to GCF which is used for paying GPS units and the continuous monitoring thereof, as well as the operating costs related to the actual field-work. After spending a day in the field, guests are also able to sit around a camp fire at night and learn more about giraffes from GCF members. According to Dr Fennessy this is a great way not only to educate people, but to also create awareness for giraffe conservation. “When guests leave here, they leave as ambassadors for life. They can watch documentaries, but it is when you spend time with people eye-to-eye, that you can truly make a difference in a person’s life,” adds Dr Fennessy.

How is the Data used?

The GPS devices utilise solar power for energy and send the position of the tagged animals on an hourly basis. This allows GCF to remotely track where- and when the giraffes move, while sitting in an office in front of their computers. Additionally to monitoring the animals on the ground, the data collected can be used to establish migration routes, which might be based on rainfall or other factors, or establishing their preferred diet based on specific bush- or tree types while browsing during different times of the year, as well as a host of additional scientific information.

With giraffes already having been tagged in Namibia, Uganda and Kenya, GCF plans to jointly with its partners, which includes the Smithsonian Conservation and Biology Institute, altogether fit about 300 collars across Africa. This provides researchers with the opportunity to compare data with giraffes spread over the whole continent, which has never been done before and would thus greatly improve the understanding of these creatures. Namibians should be proud to know that it all started here, with the first GPS tag having been applied back in 2001.

You might wonder why giraffes need to be protected. The continent has just less than 100 000 giraffes left, for which reason the animal is listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List - much the same as the African Elephant. The essential difference is brought out by the fact that there are more than four times as many African Elephants left out in the wild as there are giraffes. The biggest threats facing the giraffes are the loss of its natural habitat on account of the ever increasing human population as well as poaching.

Next time you visit the north-west of Namibia, keep an eye open for these collared giraffes that are helping to sustain their species for our future generations to enjoy.

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