by Andy Tutchings, Trustee Giraffe Conservation Foundation
History was made in Namibia in 2011, thanks in no small part to the invaluable in-country support of the Namibia Nature Foundation. Sponsored and organised by the Giraffe Conservation Foundation, the world’s first-ever conference dedicated to the giraffe in the wild, took place from 4–7 July at the Etosha Safari Lodge just south of the Etosha National Park.
And the timing could not have been more auspicious. As delegates flew in to Namibia from across the world, they heard the bleak news that one of Botswana’s major giraffe populations had plummeted by a shocking 65% over the last 10 years. This exceeded continent-wide estimates of the other species and subspecies, which suggest at least a 40% reduction of giraffe numbers during this period. It was grim news indeed, and added an additional sense of urgency and purpose to this unique gathering of international giraffe experts and researchers who had flown in from as far afield as Japan, Australia, the USA, and Europe, as well, of course, from across Africa.
As delegates relaxed with their well-deserved sundowners after their long flights and the five-hour drive north, they enjoyed thmagnificent views across the expanse that is Namibia, a country whose resident population of Giraffa camelopardalis angolensis is alone in bucking the continent-wide trend, with numbers actually increasing, although it is fair to note that the so-called Angolan giraffe, as it is commonly known among locals, may no longer occur- across the border in Angola!
Formally opened with a scene-setter and warm Namibian welcome by Werner Kilian, Director of the Etosha Ecological Institute, Ministry of Environment and Tourism in Namibia, the conference agenda and its relevance was made abundantly clear. Three days of fascinating presentations and delivery of research papers followed, covering a breadth of topics, from the increase in poaching and lion predation and ecological, social and gender issues, to the very latest in computer-assisted identification software and methodology. The presentations led seamlessly into the interactive afternoon workshop sessions on taxonomy, genetics and research technology, with many of these discussions extending late into the evening around the open fire.
The forgotten megafauna
It was abundantly clear from the conclusions of many of the presentations, and certainly as a result of the forums, that there are still many worrying questions about giraffe research and conservation management that remain unanswered. It would seem that in many cases the questions have never been raised before; the giraffe has simply been ‘forgotten’!
For example, it still comes as a surprise to many that the expedition undertaken by the Giraffe Conservation Foundation (GCF) to Botswana was, and remains, the only dedicated giraffe research undertaken in this country to date.
Appropriately entitled Giraffe: The Forgotten Megafauna, it became clear that this Indaba, the first of its kind, was long overdue and could not have come at a more critical time. With numbers across the continent estimated below 80 000, down from some 140 000 at the turn of the century, there is a clear requirement to reverse, or at best halt, this alarming decline.
As a direct result of the work and campaigning by the GCF, since 2008 two of the recognised nine subspecies have been formally Red Listed by the IUCN as Endangered (the West African giraffe numbering less than 250 individuals, and Rothschild’s numbering 670 individuals). Regrettably, other giraffe may be in similar peril, including the reticulated giraffe in East Africa, which number less than 5 000 individuals; the Kordofan giraffe, which still survives in war-torn central Africa, but its numbers are unknown; the geographically isolated Thornicroft’s giraffe in Zambia’s Luangwa Valley, with a barely stable population of some 1 500 individuals; and, most concerning, the Nubian giraffe (the nominate subspecies), with numbers possibly less than a few hundred! And so it goes on.
A long overdue roadmap
It is of little surprise then that the highlight of the Indaba was the final day’s workshop run by the world’s foremost authority on giraffe, Dr Julian Fennessy, who is also the current Director of the Namibia Nature Foundation (NNF).
The aim of this forum was to establish a long overdue roadmap, detailing short- to medium-term research goals focusing specifically on the long-term understanding of giraffe in the wild, and essentially developing a conservation management strategy framework. The resulting document will be published shortly.
The seminar proved to be the ideal conclusion to a thoroughly successful conference. Refreshing for many by virtue of its cooperative and inclusive nature, all of the delegates left inspired and motivated by the tone and outcome of the conference, assured that they would be working towards a common goal with a new group of friends, at the same time intensely aware that an enormous amount of hard work still needed to be done, and that it had started on that day!
Thus Namibia, with support from the NNF, moves forward in its endeavours to conserve giraffe, rhino, elephant, wild dog and a suite of other wildlife species in the country – as it has done for the past 25 years.
We look forward to continuing the reversal of negative impacts, and to build on the excellent public, private and communal conservation initiatives with partners local and international.
This article appeared in the 2012 edition of Conservation and the Environment in Namibia.