Stick Your Neck Out

An Interview with Julian Fennessy

In Uganda, in 2013, we started working with the government through the Uganda Wildlife Authority. What we realized is that they were really interested in being able to have someone dedicated to their giraffes. Like most countries, it's a symbol for some people and communities and they'd seen a huge decline in giraffe through the Idi Amin regime. Since then, the population had been growing, but they really didn't have a handle on it. We went in and we just started to count them. Individually we can take a photo of a giraffe and run it through a software program. We can individually recognize individuals based on their coat pattern. We've been able to double the population in Uganda just by counting it, which is quite interesting. Then what we've done is we've set up monitoring and support programs in what were then the two only remaining populations there in the national parks. Once we had an idea of what was going on there, we worked with the government to develop translocations and assessments of new areas, where can we pick up giraffes and start them new where they were previously locally extinct.

In the last two years we've helped them set up two new populations in the country and we're looking at doing assessments on another two areas as well.

OR: How does a giraffe translocation work?

Fennessy: It's pure madness. You get a team together, you go out, the veterinarians have some really highly potent drugs that you dart an individual with. We don't want big individuals because they're hard to move; we want sub-adult individuals. We dart them with this drug, they basically start to get very drowsy, you run around with a rope, you tackle them to the ground, you jump on top of them, and you hold them down. Then you blindfold them and you get them ready with some ropes. When they stand up you use the ropes like a halter to be able to push them into a little chariot, for want of a better word.

We do it one at a time: put them in these chariots and drive them off to a fenced area, like a holding pen. We normally let them join with other giraffes and they relax for a few days. Then we put them on a biggish truck -- up to six giraffes at a time -- and we drive them and put them on a ferry to cross the Nile River, which is super cool. Then we drive them for about another hour into the south side of the national park. Then we release them either straight away or we put them into another pen on the other side so that they can calm down for a day or two.

It's quite an operation. Last year when we did it, we brought up probably the world's best giraffe veterinarian -- a guy called Dr. Pete Morkel, from Namibia. We take Pete with us to be able to provide capacity, training, and support to local veterinarians and we really feel that's as a powerful tool as any. We can pay for things, which we do, and we provided trucks and drugs and equipment and all of this over the years. But being able to capacitate local people is the best thing by far for it to be sustainable.

OR: How would you describe a giraffe in non-physical terms?

Fennessy: I would describe a giraffe as aloof, at first glance. They're not generally aggressive, they are inquisitive animals. They often come very close when you're out there. You can get close, but not too close. They can be extremely aggressive if you get close. They do make lots of noises. They're not mutes: they'll scream, they'll roar, they'll huff and they'll puff if you get in their way. Then of course they have a really mean kick on them and a neck that can obviously knock you for six. They are obviously very intelligent. They have lived for probably a couple of million years in Africa and they're still surviving, so there is a level of intelligence there that we just don't understand yet, I think.

I think it's been easy for other animals to be associated human qualities. Elephants, where the young stay with the adults throughout their life. They have a really strong social bond, as do lions and gorillas. But giraffes have a social structure that we don't fully understand yet. There's never been a long-term study on giraffes -- not ever. I can't even tell you how long giraffes on average live in the wild. We've probably been studying the longest the population in northwest Namibia, but there's been no one who’s done a study more than two or three years. We have never followed them from birth to death as we’ve seen for elephants and others, and this is really limiting our understanding of what giraffes are, who they are, and how they act.

OR: Are there efforts currently being undertaken to remedy that?

Fennessy: Definitely. We're all trying to get around that. We've got a long-term(ish) study up in northwest Namibia; there have been efforts in Zambia and in other parts of Namibia. Increasing our awareness is critical just to get these long-term studies going. That could just be simple things like counting populations, following those individuals throughout their life, understanding the social structure. The more we can understand about these things, the easier it is to talk to a broader audience and say these are the personalities of giraffe. You can see that John does this or Judy does that. We don't have to use only the scientific terminology, but we can really embrace giraffes as an animal not just for their quirky amazing looks but because they have these social bonds that we don't understand yet.

I mentioned a couple of our success stories. One of the key things we're doing is developing and working with governments. This is the most critical thing, getting buy-in and support from governments to develop national strategies -- like the one we’ve just completed in Uganda. Kenya’s is set to be launched any day. Tanzania just asked us to help develop one. In all of these countries no one ever had a national strategy for giraffes. Only Niger, despite its being one of the poorest countries in the world.