Octavian Report: What is it about giraffes that drew you to them?
Julian Fennessy: I’ll be honest, I grew up not worrying about animals or wildlife or landscape. I was a city boy in Melbourne through and through. I loved playing Aussie rules football, loved going to the pub. I realized, when I visited Africa, that there was something raw, something remote beyond city life. Then when I started to work in the northwest of Namibia I did quite a lot of work on elephants and giraffes at the same time. The more and more I looked into the giraffe side, the less information was out there, especially compared to elephants — and there was nothing ever long term. There was always a good study for a year or two or maybe three as part of a Ph.D., but no one had actually ever followed through with working in the field in Africa.
I really found a niche, for want of a better word. I’m probably not the greatest scientist in the world, let’s be honest. But I’m a fairly good manager and so I realized that something needs to be done and giraffes need to get a voice. I was in the envious position of being a pushy Australian who decided to try and make a difference.
OR: Can you talk about the ecology of giraffes across Africa, and how they came to be in their current precarious situation?
Fennessy: In the zoo world, they’ve done a few surveys over the years about what peoples’ favorite animal is. Giraffe is probably number one, or at least top three. It’s one of the most charismatic, beautiful, enigmatic, iconic, and quirky animals in the world. When you’re a young kid and you see a giraffe it doesn’t make sense. It’s like a fairy tale; it’s like a Dr. Seuss animal.
When you go to game reserves in Africa, giraffes are everywhere. You see them when you go to Kruger Park, or Tusha, or the Maasai Mara, so the assumption is “Wow, giraffes are doing really well.” But unfortunately what we’ve been observing over the years is that is not so. The reality is in some of those parks, they are doing well and especially in Southern Africa. But in the rest of the places where we haven’t been keeping an eye out the numbers have been dwindling. Our best estimates suggest that in the last 30 years the numbers have dropped by almost 40 percent from about 150-odd thousand to under 100,000 now.
This is obviously what we term a sign of extinction, for want of a better word. We ourselves have been looking at the numbers for about the last eight to 10 years and trying to figure out what’s going on. We were seeing this trend in many places. Obviously it didn’t surprise us, but we didn’t really have the marketing power of many of the large NGO’s or corporates in the world to be able to tell everyone. So our voice has been slowly but consistently getting out and it’s been mostly with the support of the media — and that’s brilliant. Social media plays a big role, but also through journalists being able to help tell the story. We did a documentary with BBC and PBS, which David Attenborough narrated. Its just recently been nominated for an Emmy award as one of the outstanding nature documentaries for this year.
This is the message that we’re trying to get out there: not only are the animals dwindling, but there’s many reasons why. The biggest threat is habitat loss and habitat fragmentation. Definitely poaching — illegal hunting — is having an impact, especially across Eastern Africa and Central Africa. This is coupled with things like disease, often more common when populations get smaller and fragmented and stressed.
These are all the threats going on — with humans being the major driver behind it all. Recently, based on about 10 years or so of research, we’ve been doing genetic analysis of all major populations across Africa. We’ve come to the idea that there’s at least four species of giraffe.
OR: What are those species?
Fennessy: The species we’re proposing are the Northern giraffe, which consists of the current West African giraffe, which is in Niger; the Kordofan giraffe, which is across central African countries; the Nubian giraffe; and the Rothschild giraffe. The Rothschild giraffe we’ve shown is genetically identical to the Nubian giraffe, so actually should be lost and become one and the same, what we call subsumed. That’s the Northern giraffe as a species with three different subspecies.
Then there’s the Reticulated giraffe. Mostly in Kenya but going across a bit into Somalia and into southern Ethiopia. They’ve got really quite distinct patterns. Really bold liver colors. This is most people’s favorite-looking giraffe out there.
The next one we have is the Masai giraffe, which is quite plentiful. They are predominantly in Southern Kenya and Tanzania. We propose — again, based on many years of genetic research — that what’s called the Thornicroft’s giraffe in Zambia is actually genetically identical to the Masai giraffe.
The final one is the Southern giraffe, which consists of the Angolan subspecies and the South African subspecies of giraffe. They’re close enough genetically to be species, but they are geographically separated throughout bits of Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, and South Africa — separated enough to warrant them being different subspecies.
We figured out that some of these proposed species are actually really low in numbers. The Northern giraffe in total is less than 5,000 individuals in the wild. Compare that to many other species. Look at the elephant. The African elephant probably numbers between 400 and 450,000 across the continent and we’ve probably got the Northern giraffe at less than 5,000. We’ve got the Reticulated giraffe with less than 9,000. We’ve got the Masai giraffe, which probably number quite a lot more — in the low 30,000’s — but they’ve dropped by just over 50 percent in the last 30 years alone.
For the Southern giraffe, the numbers are looking good. That’s sort of bucking the trend, so to speak, with good game conservation management from private, public, and community land. Numbers of these giraffe have been booming, so definitely there’s no threat there at the moment of numbers going wrong. We just need to focus on the core areas now of east, central, and west Africa.
OR: You’ve mentioned that land and resource use and poaching are the main pressures driving down populations. What does that actually look like, and what is driving the illegal hunting?
Fennessy: If we look at habitat loss or fragmentation or degradation, all of this is a result of essentially human population growing in what we term rural Africa. Villages keep popping up in areas that wildlife historically moved through and around because there was low human population density, but with the human population growing, there’s obviously demand for more agricultural land to feed your family. This just continues to grow and obviously fragments where wildlife can move through area. That’s how wildlife conflict starts.
As a result there is poaching, illegal hunting, and many animals go away from area. They see that conflict, they’re obviously not going to go in that area. Reproductive potential is reduced greatly because they’ve got obviously increased stresses just like in any human population. The more stressed you are, obviously, the less you’re going to reproduce.
In some areas there is much more poaching where there’s a level of civil unrest and poor governance. If you look at the ivory trade, a big part of the issue relates to poor governance in countries and their inability to control it, to monitor it, and to enforce the laws around it. Very similar for giraffes. If you go through areas like northern DRC, Democratic Republic of Congo, the Lord’s Resistance Army has been running around for many years and it’s not fun. There’s lots of people putting their lives on the line to try to conserve wildlife and giraffe numbers. We estimate the giraffe population in northern DRC to be, I think, 42.
Is that a viable population? We don’t know. If you go the Central African Republic, it’s been in civil unrest for more than a year now. Giraffe and other wildlife are going to suffer because people need to feed, and it’s a lot of protein on the hoof.
South Sudan is very similar. Ethiopia, too. Couple that with some countries like Kenya and Tanzania, where we are likely seeing an increase in the bush meat trade. Most people think of bush meat as tiny antelopes or monkeys or things like that. If you have a big barbecue at home in Texas you’re going to have a massive slab of meat. Africans love their meat, there’s no doubt about it. People are killing giraffe illegally and serving it on their barbecues and selling it in rural towns. If you look at it, it just looks like any red meat. This is driving the decline in some of these countries.
Then there’s the point that people don’t like to discuss: legal hunting or sustainable use. Sustainable use of giraffe can be trophy hunting, legal hunting to use the meat, but it also can be live sales of animals, which are then sold to other areas to be able to boost their population. It’s sustainable use in the sense that you build up a population and you move some of them.
What we’re seeing is that sustainable use as a policy, whether it be trophy hunting or not, only occurs in three countries in Africa: Zimbabwe, South Africa, and Namibia. These are the only countries that allow legal hunting. You have to apply for a permit to be able to hunt giraffes. Normally it’s on private land and you still have to apply for permits, but there is some hunting on communal lands, especially in Namibia. All in all, it’s very low numbers. With the increasing population of giraffes in southern Africa, trophy hunting is not causing the decline of giraffes in general at all.
This is a misconception that a lot of people are putting out there because it’s a very moral, ethical, and emotional issue. I personally don’t want to go out there and hunt a giraffe. However, I think we also need to be cognizant that trophy hunting is not causing the decline of giraffes in Africa — it is illegal hunting as well as habitat losses I mentioned doing that.
OR: What are the biggest obstacles that you and GCF face, be they political or economic?
Fennessy: We actually like to propose the positives about what we are doing and what we can continue to do. I’ll start by just giving you a couple of success stories in Africa. The West African giraffe only lives in Niger, only in community areas — there’s none in national parks — and 20 years ago there were 49 individuals remaining. There’s none in zoos anywhere in the world. They only existed in Niger, and they all became extinct from neighboring Mali, Nigeria, and all the way across to Senegal.
The government made a really conscientious decision. It put in place good legislation, law enforcement, and support from the NGO world to be able to do something to protect these last individuals. A lot of it came down to providing support to the community for them to protect the giraffes. What did they need? Did they need things like increased water points for their livestock? Was it improved agricultural practices? Was it access to micro-credit schemes to be able to have their own businesses? All of this was directly linked with the giraffes. If you conserve the giraffes and these numbers go up, you will see more benefits in tourism and also in development — especially important as Niger is one of the poorest countries in the world.
Today, we have more than 500 giraffes now in the wild in Niger. Government continues to be proactive. Just last year or the year before, the second national strategy for giraffe conservation was developed. We worked closely with them on this. We have staff ourselves in Niger who work closely with the government and other local NGO’s to be able to implement this national strategy. This document is the guiding principle behind everything that we do in the country — everything from local community support to international awareness, economic development, local industry, and tourism. That’s a really good success story about what’s happening.
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.
What we need is this government buy-in and I think a lot of that has come from us doing the work to figure out how many giraffes are there, where they are, and the threats that associate with it. As a result, governments say, “We need to do something about our animals!” So we’re obviously there, asking how can we help them to help conserve their animals. We obviously need to raise money. That’s the reality. It’s not in government budgets to look after giraffes at the level that we need to do it. We have great support from the zoo world, from philanthropy. America is our biggest audience by far. We really appreciate the support. I think it would be a really sad day if we woke up and these animals were all gone.
I think people have such an affinity with helping save wildlife. The support through financial means and for things like translocations where we are making a real conservation difference is critical. We do need to do research. Science is the basis of any conservation or management decision. But we also need to take action. That’s why we’re doing thing like translocations and understanding the genetics so we can make better-informed decisions.
OR: What worries you the most about the pressures facing giraffes?
Fennessy: Apathy. That’s what worries me most. That people think, “Okay, we’re not going to be able to save it, it’s doomed and gloomed.” But that, I think, is a human trait that really will cause problems. We can do something about it.
OR: What would be the one most important thing that you’d want the public to understand about these animals?
Fennessy: We’ve got to act now. We’ve got to stand tall, so to speak, for these giraffe. Put your hand in your pockets, tell the world what’s happening. Because together we can make so much more of a difference than us as a small organization.