With support from the Wellington Zoo Conservation Fund, Herbivore Keeper, April Turnbull has been in Namibia to work alongside the Giraffe Conservation Foundation (GCF) in the field, to contribute to behavioural research of the Angolan Giraffe species and learn all about their conservation.
A typical day in the field involved waking up as the sun was rising and making a campfire to boil the jug (side note: old Elephant poo make wonderful fire starters!). We would then have a hearty breakfast before heading out into the river to begin surveying at around 9 am. Lunch was typically around 1 pm and then we would arrive back at camp between 4 and 5 pm, where we would enter all the data from the day into the laptop and create new ID sheets for any new individuals we identified. Dinner would then be made over an open fire, which consisted of things like pesto pasta, curry, baked potatoes with bean sauce or beef stew and was always finished off with a big slab of chocolate. We ate like kings in the field!
Night time was equally stunning, exhilarating and terrifying all at the same time. The stars were so bright and blanketed the entire night sky as we were so far from any form of light pollution. We had a few unknown specimens come sniffing around our tents at night, mainly mice and one potential Honey Badger, but I felt so safe, secure and comfortable in my little tent. I would fall asleep to the sound of Spotted Hyenas calling in the distance and Jackals screeching into the night air. It was magical. I loved waking up in the morning and searching around the camp for any tracks from overnight visitors, and felt both disappointed and relieved when I didn’t find any.
After five days of research in the Hoanib, we packed up camp and headed out bright and early for the Hoarusib River further north. The drive to our next research area was bumpy, to say the least, but the views were stunning! The Hoarusib River is home to over 120 Giraffe so it didn’t come as a surprise that we spotted our first group before we even made it to camp. We set up at a bush lodge in Purros and headed out for a quick afternoon survey before the sun set. The landscape in Purros is completely different to the Hoanib. There is an endless expanse of sand dunes surrounding you, broken only by mountains of orange rock. It wasn’t hard to understand why the rivers act as vital lifelines for the biodiversity within the region. The Hoarusib River was much wider, greener and harder to navigate through due to rocky substrates and tyre-bursting acacia thorns. The most memorable event from our stay in the Hoarusib was a night-time visit from a Brown Hyena and an Elephant… All you could hear was solid, yet surprisingly quiet footsteps and then branches cracking and breaking as the Elephant snacked on the trees surrounding our camp. That was pretty amazing!
Our time in the Hoarusib flew by and before we knew it 3 nights had passed and it was time to pack up and head out for the long journey home. It was a bitter-sweet day, as it meant the adventure was coming to an end, but it also meant I was getting closer to an actual bed and a shower. Emma surprised us with cabins for the night which felt like 5-star luxury! The plan for that night was to catch up on data entry and finish off any unfinished work from the field. The problem was, we were such studious volunteers that we made sure our data was completed the day we collected it. So instead we had a relaxed dinner at the guesthouse restaurant and reflected upon the last 9 days of adventure in the name of conservation. The next morning (after dealing with yet another flat tyre and enduring two earthquakes through breakfast) we hit the road again for the last time. Driving on tar seal after sand, dirt and rocks for 9 days is a strange and relieving feeling I must admit. But again it was another reminder that my adventure was drawing to a close. Once back in Windhoek, we unloaded our gear at the GCF office and we were dropped back to our accommodation for one final night in Namibia.
Overall we had a total of 83 Giraffe identifications and collected five genetic samples. I cannot express in words how humbling it was to be in the presence of that many Giraffe. The data we collected is being compiled by the GCF for a variety of research outcomes. The population surveys, combined with the genetic studies, will allow the GCF to better understand the social dynamics and structure of Giraffe groupings. This is important as we know very little about the social behaviour of Giraffes and what drives their group size and composition.
Some individuals within this region also have telemetry units placed on their ossicones. These are solar powered tracking devices, which allow the GCF to track the movement of individuals, observing daily activity patterns. This allows for investigation into seasonal differences in movement and patterns of feeding behaviour. The GCF are delving into the seasonal, climatic, environmental and behavioural drivers of Giraffe behaviour within the Kunene region. This is critical for the conservation of the Angolan Giraffe species, as understanding these key factors will help to more accurately guide conservation action and decisions related to the preservation of this species.
I cannot thank the Giraffe Conservation Foundation enough for this incredible, once in a lifetime experience. Emma was such an inspiring individual with a true passion for conservation and sustainability, a role model for all of us. I am so privileged to have been able to assist with this research that is helping to shape and guide conservation action for the Angolan Giraffe species. Giraffe may be facing a silent crisis, but I have made it my personal goal to at least try and remove the ‘silent’ aspect from the situation.
I also want to thank the Wellington Zoo Trust and the Wellington Zoo Conservation Fund for supporting me to travel so far and be part of such a worthy cause. I am so dedicated, more than ever, to educate those around me about the plight of Giraffe in the wild and to inspire others to make a difference and support Giraffe conservation.
I am only one person, but as the incredible Jane Goodall once said: “What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make”.