Tomorrow’s Lmaras: The quest to save reticulated giraffes

by | 17th April 2015

By David Brown

A reticulated giraffe browses on a bush for lunch. Photo by John Doherty.

When most people imagine giraffes they probably think of tall mammals with spots.

There are actually many kinds of giraffes in Africa. They are all tall and they all have spots, but there are differences between them.

One type of giraffe is called the reticulated giraffe.

The reticulated giraffe lives in northeastern Kenya, southern Ethiopia and, possibly, southwestern Somalia. John Doherty and Jacob Leaidura study the Kenyan population of these giraffes from their base in Samburu National Reserve. John is a scientist from Ireland. Jacob is a member of the Samburu community – a group of people in northern Kenya. He is a naturalist and educator. Together, they spend a lot of time observing the behavior and other characteristics of the reticulated giraffes in their study area.

John explains what makes the reticulated giraffes different from other giraffes and how they got their name: “The word ‘reticulated’ means ‘marked like a net’ and refers to the clean, white lines on the giraffes’ lovely red-brown coats. Some people call them Somali giraffes because they used to be common in the very north-east corner of Africa.”

“In my language,” says Jacob, “the word for giraffe is ‘lmeut’ (many Samburu words start with the letter “L”) but usually people call them ‘lmara’, which means ‘spotted, dappled or colorful.’”

John Doherty and Jacob Leaidura look for giraffes. Photo by John Doherty.

John explains what they are trying to learn about the reticulated giraffes. “At the moment, we’re trying to understand their social structure: the ways in which they relate to one another. In the past, people thought that giraffes were not very friendly because, even though they are often found in groups, they are constantly changing their companions. Our work – and that of our colleagues studying different kinds of giraffes in other parts of Africa – suggests that this may be a misunderstanding. It may be, instead, that giraffes live in complex communities that don’t depend on friends and acquaintances being constantly together – very much in the way that we humans do.”

Jacob has been living around giraffes his whole life. He describes what it was like growing up with giraffes around him. “Because I was familiar with giraffes and other large animals throughout my childhood, I can’t remember the very first one I saw. What I do recall, from the age of about 10, is that there used to be so many and they were so huge and I was so small that I was afraid to go near them. In those days, when I wasn’t at school, I was looking after my father’s cattle, goats and sheep, roaming with them far and wide and protecting them from wild animals, especially lions, and also from thieves. By coincidence, John saw his very first reticulated giraffes at about that time and just outside my home village.”

John and Jacob are worried that the number of reticulated giraffes is going down all of the time.

In the interview below, John answers questions about the work that he and Jacob do, why the reticulated giraffes are endangered, and what people can do to help them. Why are reticulated giraffes endangered?

John Doherty: We think that the overall population has suffered a decline of more than 80% in only the last 15 years. Factors such as predation and disease may have played a part in this, but it seems that the single most important cause is poaching. The people who live in the areas where reticulated giraffes are found suffer from intermittent drought and famine. Many of them have illegal guns that have found their way into the area from long-running wars in neighboring countries. This combination of poverty, hunger, and firearms spells trouble for wildlife in general and giraffes in particular. Lions and elephants get a lot of attention, but do the kids who live where the reticulated giraffes are know that they have a special kind of giraffe where they live?

John Doherty: We all take the things around us for granted. Children in Samburu have grown up with elephants, lions and giraffes and imagine that they will always be there. Some older people recognize that there are many places where they saw animals in their childhoods but don’t any more, or notice that, even where wildlife survives, the numbers are much lower than they used to be. We’re working especially with the youngsters to help them realize how lucky they are to live with such amazing creatures and to think of them as more than simply free-range food. Do Kenyans know that they live in the place with the most kinds of giraffes in the world? Is there much interest in conserving giraffes in the wild? If not, is there any effort to try and increase giraffe conservation awareness?

John Doherty: Together with the Kenya Wildlife Service, Thadeus Obari, who studies Masai giraffes, and Zoe Muller of the Rothschild’s Giraffe Project, we take every opportunity to raise public awareness of Kenya’s unique inheritance. It is remarkable that no other country in Africa has more than one kind of giraffe while Kenya has three. John says that this reflects the fact that today’s giraffes first appeared in this part of Africa more than a million years ago. Later, they spread to the west and the south, but because they’ve been here longer than anywhere else, they’ve had more time to change and evolve. What do people need to do to protect the reticulated giraffe and make sure that it survives into the future?

John Doherty: The issues facing reticulated giraffe conservation are complicated and difficult because they arise from much wider problems such as the world’s rapidly increasing human population and the effects of climate change and poverty. People who live with the giraffes first have to recognize that they’re endangered and then make a conscious decision that they don’t want to lose them. Giraffes bring benefits to local communities in terms of income from tourism and jobs in conservation but, beyond that, they help to make the world a wonderful and complex place for people to live in and enjoy. What specific things can people do to help protect reticulated giraffes, especially those who are interested in giraffes but live outside of Africa?

John Doherty: Those of us who don’t live in Africa but who love to know that we share our little planet with such beautiful and fascinating animals can act only indirectly by spreading the word among our friends and neighbors and by encouraging grown-ups in positions of power and influence to take effective action. If you feel strongly that you want giraffes to survive, don’t keep it to yourself: tell your parents, your teachers, your local zoo, your government and the governments of countries where giraffes are still found.

Imagine if they were already extinct and we knew of them only from fossils, we’d never have guessed that they had such unusual and beautiful markings.

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