Six feet tall and adorable, baby giraffe are surprisingly common on the Siria Plateau of western Kenya. Since 2014, Maasai Morans Conservation and Walking Safaris (MMCWS) and Life Net (USA), two cooperating conservation organizations, have been conducting giraffe surveys on the plateau. In addition to counting giraffe, they took photographs to identify and monitor many individuals.
Like fingerprints, the fur patterns of giraffe are unique. Using pattern recognition software, Dr. Petra Campbell recently determined that 161 different individual giraffe had been photographed on the plateau during 5 years. Campbell compared hundreds of Life Net photos with other photos from the Mara Reserve region of Kenya. The photos reveal that the giraffe population on the Siria Plateau has a larger proportion of calves than elsewhere, 18-25% versus 5-13%. The photos also indicate that giraffe using the Siria Plateau range only west of the Mara River, suggesting the river is a barrier. Thus, the Siria Plateau seems to be a giraffe nursery area acting as a source of giraffe for wildlife tourism in the Mara Triangle Reserve in Kenya, making these areas on the plateau important to preserve.
Why might mother giraffe be attracted to the Siria Plateau? By watching giraffe on the plateau, Maasai youth and their volunteer partners from Life Net noticed that mother-infant groups feed in thickets of short acacia trees, probably because the baby giraffe can reach fresh leaves. These short-growing acacia trees seem more abundant on the plateau than in the adjacent Mara Triangle Reserve. Giraffe calves may also have higher survival on the plateau where predators, such as lions, are less common. Maasai pastoralists keep big cats away from livestock (cattle, sheep, goats), making the plateau safer for wild herbivores.
Still, for giraffe, all is not well on the plateau, and these special giraffe nursery areas face many threats. In 2018, Maasai on the plateau privatized communal lands, and already one adult male giraffe died when he became entangled in an electric property-line fence. Farmers from other tribes rent land from the Maasai, and this practice further imperils giraffe when they enter cornfields or other agricultural areas. Angry farmers will spear or snare giraffe, causing yet more horrible deaths of this endangered species. Even tourism may be harming giraffe on the Siria Plateau because more lodges are being built atop the Oloololo escarpment to give guests an amazing view, but these developments can block the pathways traditionally used by giraffe.
While the photo evidence strongly indicates that giraffe mothers depend on the plateau for raising their young, conservation biologists still need to determine exactly where and when the giraffe breed, map the nursery habitats, and determine what factors create and sustain the short acacia thickets. Ultimately, it is in the hands of local Maasai landowners to protect the giraffe nurseries, but conservation stakeholders should compensate them.
Local Maasai landowners say they are eager to start immediately to protect the giraffe nurseries and to work towards forming a land conservancy, but they deserve compensation incentives. They have hinted at monetary help to educate their children, so Life Net Nature is leading a fundraiser for that cause.
You can help save baby giraffe and their nursery habitats by donating to Life Net Nature’s Maasai School Fees Program, or by volunteering on our next wildlife conservation project in Kenya: August 16–29, 2020. Maasai children and young giraffe could both be winners in this dynamic community-based effort.
To donate online go to https://www.facebook.com/LifeNetNature/ . You can also mail a U.S.$ check made to Life Net to 6423 S. Bascom Trail, Willcox, AZ. 85643, USA. Donate $200 or more and we will name a giraffe in your honor and send you his/her photo.