Taking Giraffe Surveillance to New Heights

Conservationists Take Giraffe Surveillance to New Heights with Bold, First-of-its-kind GPS Tracking Project in Northern Kenya

In a remote area of northern Kenya, a team of conservationists and veterinarians are collaborating on a unique project that will allow them to gather in-depth information on the habits of Kenya’s threatened reticulated giraffe population. The science team, made up of personnel from multiple conservation organizations—including the Giraffe Conservation Foundation, Northern Rangelands Trust, Kenya Wildlife Service, The Nature Conservancy, Loisaba Conservancy, the Smithsonian Institution, Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, Senckenberg BiK-F, Goethe University, Savannah Tracking and San Diego Zoo Global—has attached solar-powered GPS satellite tracking devices to 11 reticulated giraffes in the region. The units will provide the science team with real-time data on giraffe movements, the size of their home ranges, where they travel during seasons and the travel corridors they use over the next two years—making this the first time such a large group of giraffes will be tracked for multiple years in East Africa.

“It’s so exciting,” said Julian Fennessy, Ph.D., co-founder/co-director of the Giraffe Conservation Foundation. “We are doing this not just for research, not for fun: We want to figure out where these giraffes are moving, so we can better provide conservation management support, whether that be anti-poaching support on the ground, working with communities, all the way to helping a sick giraffe and bringing in the Kenya Wildlife Service to help.”

Attaching these small devices to 11 wild giraffes was not an easy task, requiring years of planning and detailed preparation. The team first had to find, corral and sedate each giraffe—making sure every step was performed with the utmost care and attention to detail. The team then secured the units to the giraffes’ ossicones—the horn-like structures on top of their head—and monitored the giraffes until they were able to stand and leave on their own. The goal was to complete the task as quickly and proficiently as possible, ensuring the least amount of human interaction necessary with each giraffe.

“Time is of the essence and efficiency equals life, in giraffe work,” said Mathew Mutinda, veterinarian with the Kenya Wildlife Service. “The shorter time you can process the animal, the greater chance there is of success—such as the 100 percent success we’ve had so far.”

Over the past few years, conservationists have worked tirelessly to track and count giraffe species—analyzing existing data and conducting giraffe counts. Assessing giraffe populations can be challenging and expensive work, requiring aerial surveys and long hours in the field monitoring and counting giraffes, often in remote areas with rough terrain. Through these efforts, researchers have discovered that the world’s population of giraffes continues to decline at an alarming rate, with just under 100,000 individuals left in their native habitats. That is a decrease of nearly 40 percent over the last 20 years. These findings led the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to change giraffes’ status last year to Vulnerable, on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

Scientists believe the startling downward trend is due to poaching, habitat loss, habitat fragmentation and disease—leading to situations where certain giraffe subpopulations have decreased so rapidly, they are now extinct in seven African nations. San Diego Zoo Global has partnered with the Giraffe Conservation Foundation, Northern Rangelands Trust, Kenya Wildlife Service and The Nature Conservancy, as well as other conservation organizations, to help reverse this trend in East Africa through the creation of community-based conservation projects with Kenyan pastoralists.

“Community conservancies are where we’re seeing strong signs of hope with increasing giraffe population numbers,” said David O’Connor, researcher and ecologist for San Diego Zoo Global. “We are working hard to support those conservancies and the people that coexist with giraffes, to assist their incredible efforts on the front lines.”

Conservationists are hoping this new tracking project, funded through a World Giraffe Day initiative by the Giraffe Conservation Foundation last year, will not only provide movement and habitat data, but also information that could assist community conservancies develop better strategies for managing their lands and livestock, while also expanding the frontiers of giraffe science.