Cleveland’s Giraffe Herd Grows As Global Preservation Efforts Intensify
Friday, June 21, marks the official start of summer, and since it's the longest day of the year, conservationists and wildlife protection groups use the occasion to bring awareness to an animal known for its long neck - the giraffe.
“You know people have baby giraffes in nurseries,” said Travis Vineyard, an animal curator with the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo. “So it's one of those animals that we learn about even as infants, and so I think there's this natural attraction and familiarity to such a great species.”
Vineyard plans and orchestrates logistics for moving animals in and out of the zoo. That includes one of the zoo’s newest arrivals – a male giraffe calf, born in April, and just christened Kidogo, a Swahili word meaning little.
“The calf was born at a very small weight,” said Vineyard. “It doesn’t sound small, but 101 pounds is small. The other calf that we have here that is about 1.5 years old, he was born at 154 pounds. So the most recent calf, we were quite concerned, but he just appears to be small in stature.”
Kidogo brings Cleveland's giraffe population to five. But while the herd increases here, the giraffe population in the wild remains cause for concern. The International Union for Conservation of Nature considers the giraffe vulnerable and at high risk of extinction in the wild. Giraffes currently inhabit 21 sub-Saharan African countries. The overall global population plummeted at least 30 percent over the last three decades. The biggest threats: habitat loss, human population growth and poaching.
In April, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced it would consider listing the giraffe as an endangered species. It now begins an in-depth review of the giraffe population to determine merit. But those working closest with the giant creatures say a label won't change their work to bring about awareness and conservation action.
“I think most people that have been on a safari or have any experience in Africa have seen giraffe,” said zoo director Chris Kuhar. “So you don’t get the sense that giraffes are in trouble. But the reality is, there are only about 110-111,000 giraffe left in the wild. And when you compare that to animals we know are in crisis mode, like elephants… there’s some estimates that there’s 450,000 elephants left and that’s a terrible number. But there’s a quarter of the giraffe left in the world than there are elephants.”
Julian Fennessy is co-director and founder of the Giraffe Conservation Foundation (GCF), an organization focused on conservation and management of giraffes in the wild. He came to Cleveland to meet his partners at the zoo and provide an update on the foundation’s work, which spans 15 African countries.
He said cooperation with local governments and residents is critical.
“So in Uganda we’ve seen the population double in the last five years by working there, setting up new populations,” said Fennessy. “But in other countries, we do have issues. We have problems with poaching… local people who are trying to live life and at the same time, they’re eating and feeding on giraffe. Some of those places are a bit scary to go to, there’s bullets flying around. But in all honesty, if we are to save giraffe in some of these places, we have to get boots on the ground.”
Getting boots on the ground is one way Cleveland Metroparks Zoo supports GCF.
“We make a connection with those that are in the field doing the work, and then we help fundraise for them, we provide our resources,” said Kuhar. “So we’ve sent veterinarians to help with giraffe translocations and study giraffe skin disease. We’ve sent animal care staff to help with those translocations, so we’re providing our expertise for those people that are on the ground.”
Translocation is the term zoologists use when they physically move animals to places where they have gone extinct in order to re-establish populations.
“Transporting a giraffe is the maddest thing you can do in the world,” said Fennessy. “You know, to physically capture them is difficult, but then putting them in trucks, moving them fast distances. You’re talking about watering them. You’re talking about feeding them. But they stand almost the whole way.”
In 2018, the Giraffe Conservation Foundation established a new satellite population of West African giraffe in the Gadabedji Biosphere Reserve in Niger. Giraffes hadn't been seen in that area for nearly 50 years. The GCF hopes the new habitat will help giraffe numbers grow.
The group now better understands giraffe movements, thanks to a program called Twiga Tracker, which uses GPS satellite units to track the animals. The goal is to attach 250 units on all four species across Africa to help manage the populations.
To make an impact locally, Cleveland Metroparks Zoo emphasizes its role as the front door to conservation -- by engaging visitors as partners in what’s going on around the world.
“Giraffe are one of those great species where we can actually allow guests to feed animals,” said Kuhar. “That connection, when you see a giraffe up close, and you see that tongue come out and grab the lettuce leaf.
"We know now that making that connection with animals is really important to inspire any sort of action, any sort of willingness to engage in conservation.”
A contest to name the newest giraffe is one way to the zoo tries to engage the public with conservation issues. Anyone who made a financial contribution to protecting giraffes in the wild could vote.