In March, Nashville Zoo hoofstock keeper, Stephanie Edling, journeyed alongside Julian Fennessy, the cofounder and co-director of the Giraffe Conservation Foundation, to conduct field work and gather information on inbreeding, collect DNA samples and test new GPS collars on Rothschild’s giraffes (Giraffa camelopardalis) in the Kidepo Valley National Park in Uganda.
The week consisted of exploring three different routes to locate giraffes. Stephanie’s team was responsible for identifying individuals using an ID book compiled by GCF. The ID book includes details and photos of all giraffes seen in Kidepo Valley during the two year study. Just like humans are identified by fingerprints, giraffes are identified by their spots!
Although there is no evidence of poaching in the area, the giraffe population in Kidepo Valley is increasing slower than GCF researchers had hoped. After the once thriving population was poached in the 70s, there were only three giraffes (one female, two males) identified in Kidepo Valley through the 90s. The team resurveyed the area to track the progress of the herd’s growth as well as collected DNA samples from adult giraffes to help assess if there is any inbreeding that could potentially explain why the population is so low in that area.
In total, 33 giraffes were spotted on the trip. The team saw all 27 giraffes identified in the ID book, as well as six new calves and several pregnant females! The unexpected discovery of new calves and pregnant females was an exciting find for the group. Detailed photos were taken and their GPS location, sex and approximate age were logged in the ID book so the calves could be monitored and contribute to the ongoing research about the Rothschild’s giraffe population in the park.
The last day of the trip was dedicated to testing new GPS collars which will help GCF collect data and monitor the giraffe for longer periods of time. Ugandan Wildlife Authority veterinarians and rangers assisted the GCF team in collaring one male adult and one female adult, named Marina and Bogan, who have already helped researchers discover new information about the giraffes' locations and movements.
Through recent conservation work in Africa involving genetics and population assessments, it has been determined the threats to the wild population of giraffe are more severe than what was initially realized. African giraffe populations as a whole include approximately 60,000 animals; however, recent studies have discovered isolated populations and even different species of giraffes whose numbers range as low as a few hundred to a few thousand. “Most people don't realize that giraffes are endangered. It is common knowledge that elephants are in danger of becoming extinct, but there are far more elephants left in the wild than all of the giraffes species combined,” says Edling.
Nashville Zoo is currently home to four Masai giraffe, which Stephanie has worked with over the last four years. “Getting to work with giraffes in the wild was an amazing experience I will never forget,” says Edling. “I’m excited to continue learning about all the different giraffe species and how we can help save them.” In an effort to support the work going on to help the plight of giraffe, Nashville Zoo donated $10,000 to the Giraffe Conservation Foundation in 2016 and is excited to continue supporting their mission and research.