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Sunday, October 20

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Update from the field: Giraffe Conservation Foundation

Zoo Atlanta has participated in the Quarters for Conservation program since 2016. This initiative contributes 25 cents of every general admission ticket to programs for wildlife. I know a quarter may seem small, but they really do add up, and the positive impact that it provides for wildlife is immense. As a member of the Hoofstock Team here at Zoo Atlanta, I have the privilege to work with some pretty incredible animals, including a bachelor group of reticulated giraffes. These giraffes, along with the other animals here at Zoo Atlanta, play a huge role as ambassadors for their counterparts in the wild. With that, I’m very excited to announce that the Giraffe Conservation Foundation is one of the three programs that will benefit from Quarters for Conservation for the 2019-2020 program year.

A little background information about the Giraffe Conservation Foundation (GCF) … they are the world’s first and only charitable organization dedicated solely to the conservation and management of giraffes in the wild throughout Africa. Currently, GCF is involved in giraffe conservation initiatives in 15 African countries. Recently, GCF has partnered with the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, San Diego Zoo Global, and Wildlife Conservation Alliance to develop a program called Twiga Tracker. This program has the ambitious aim to GPS satellite tag more than 250 individual giraffes throughout their range in Africa. The goal is to gather data on the spatial movements of all giraffe species throughout Africa.  Most recently, GCF tagged the first Kordofan giraffe in Zakouma National Park (NP) in Chad to add to this amazing program.

In January 2019, GCF partnered with the Kordofan Giraffe Project and African Parks Network (AP) to undertake the first-ever giraffe GPS satellite tagging operation in Chad. Zakouma NP is thought to be home to more than 60 percent of the world’s wild Kordofan giraffe population. The park is a conservation success story, and its Kordofan giraffes are one of the few increasing giraffe populations in Africa. The park was initially created in 1963 to preserve the last 50 Kordofan giraffes in Chad. Since 2010 when AP took over management of the park, the giraffe population has increased from 537 individuals to an estimated 1,200 (and counting) today. Zakouma NP is known for its extreme wet season, with more than half of its area underwater from May to October. With these extreme wet seasons, the team was expecting some very interesting migration movements from the Kordofan giraffes. In January of this year, eight solar-powered GPS units (also called ossi-units) were fitted to the ossicones (horns) of eight female giraffes. The units weigh 185 grams and cause no interference with the giraffes’ natural behavior. These units are very handy for GCF and allow them to monitor the giraffes’ movements remotely year-round by simply logging into their computers.  

The tagging operation itself was conducted by an experienced team consisting of GCF Director Dr. Julian Fennessy, expert wildlife veterinarian Dr. Pete Morkel, and Zakouma NP AP manager Leon Lamprecht and his team of four on the ground. As with all other tagging trips, the first few days of the operation involved lots of planning. To place the ossi-units on the giraffes, the giraffes must be tranquilized. Safety of the animals was a top concern and having an experienced team on hand was tremendously helpful. The entire process from start to finish takes approximately 15-20 minutes per giraffe. During this time, the entire team works to monitor the animal’s health, collect bio-data, and attach the ossi-unit. All giraffes are checked for signs of skin disease or potential health issues and small skin biopsies are taken to collect a DNA sample. This is used by researchers to get a better picture of where they fit into the wider African giraffe population taxonomy (GCF and partners have recently shown that there are four different species of giraffe and not, as previously thought, only one).

During the first two weeks after the GPS units were placed on the eight females, none of the giraffes moved far from the tagging site. This was not surprising to the team as it was still the dry season. The Kordofan giraffe population in Chad is critical for gaining a better understanding of this subspecies. After years of high poaching pressure during times of civil war, their numbers are now increasing rapidly under the safe management of AP in cooperation with the Chadian Government. Remote monitoring of the population will be supplemented with regular on-the-ground surveys during the dry season, as well as a camera trap network to confirm sightings. As the team learns more about the Kordofan giraffe, they can assess necessary conservation measures for the subspecies. This may include potential translocation to other safe zones within the country. Over the next few months and even years, the ossi-units will help GCF understand the habitat needs of the giraffe and guide more informed management decisions.   

Photo credit: Giraffe Conservation Foundation/Fiona MacKay 

Bridget S.
Keeper II, Mammals and Quarters for Conservation Champion, Giraffe Conservation Foundation

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