Since June 2017, people from all over the world have been embarking on a virtual safari to northern Kenya to help study and conserve reticulated giraffes. More than 15,000 volunteers have visited wildwatchkenya.org to help us classify images from motion-activated trail cameras, and they recently hit an incredible milestone. In just under two years, these “Wildwatchers” have classified over one million images.
These classifications are a vital step toward helping our research team understand the giraffe populations at our two study sites in northern Kenya. So far, more than 4,000 images of giraffes have been classified, with 175 of those images containing calves. This data, which helps us identify the locations where giraffes are occurring, has already contributed to updating the range maps of reticulated giraffes. These new range maps—created by the giraffe research team at San Diego Zoo Global, along with several partners around the world—will be published later this year.
While we have been able to collect an incredible number of giraffe images, the most numerous species classified in the images, with over 20,000 classifications, were “livestock”—including camels, goats, sheep, cattle, donkeys, and domestic dogs. As over 95 percent of reticulated giraffe habitat is estimated to be outside of formally protected areas, this massive number of images highlights the increased importance of understanding how giraffes and other wildlife exist alongside livestock in this shared landscape. We can use this data to try to understand areas of high giraffe density, compared to areas of high livestock density. This data will help us understand the displacement, if any, of giraffe by livestock and will further inform giraffe conservation decisions.
We are also using this data to help increase community awareness and understanding of conservation. The Twiga Walinzi, the Kenyan-based research team, share the images and results from Wildwatch Kenya with community members. Although these communities live alongside wildlife everyday, many have never seen the rare and elusive animals that we are able to see through our trail camera images.
These classifications are not only providing crucial insight into these giraffe populations, but they have also contributed to research on other elusive or endangered species. Amazingly, over 40 different species have been classified in these images, including servals, leopards, and lions.
In addition to helping update the range maps of reticulated giraffes, these images also contributed to updating and “ground-truthing” the range maps for hyenas. We have been able to use the images of giraffes identified by Wildwatch Kenya volunteers to help populate the Giraffe Spotter database (GiraffeSpotter.org), which helps keeps track and monitor individual giraffes across Africa by utilizing novel coat-recognition technology.
While these discoveries and milestones are an incredible accomplishment, these giraffes still need our help. With cameras still deployed in the field, there is plenty more data to be processed, and much more work to be done. So, put on your best safari gear (or relax in your PJs), jump online, start classifying, and you’ll be transported to the vast and breathtaking rangelands of northern Kenya.
A huge thank you to all of the amazing Wildwatchers who have already tagged images, shared their favorite finds, and contributed to gathering this robust set of data! You have played a vital role in conserving these remarkable animals.
Jenna Stacy-Dawes is a research coordinator for San Diego Zoo Global. Read her previous story, Lekiji, Fupi, and Reteti.