“Treatment trials on the Rothschild’s Giraffe” – Photos by Sherry McKelvie
“Saving Uganda’s Rothschild’s Giraffe” Article by Anne-Marie Weeden, Uganda Conservation Foundation
Uganda is home to the world’s last remaining stronghold of Rothschild’s giraffe, with over 800 of these beautiful animals residing in Murchison Falls National Park. Yet the overall population trend is in decline – less than 2,500 of them are left in the world, many of which are housed within zoos or captive breeding programmes. If this continues, this elegant sub-species of giraffe will soon be classified as ‘Critically Endangered’ – meaning it faces a very real, and immediate, threat of extinction in the wild. The Murchison population represents the Rothschild’s best hope for survival, but not without its own vulnerability to the dangers of poaching, injury, or disease.
Back in 2011, Murchison Falls National Park was suffering a renewed surge of poaching. The Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) contacted Uganda Conservation Foundation (UCF) with a request to help. Animals were getting ensnared – including the Rothschild’s – and especially in the areas bordering the many waterways that surround the park. Poachers were using the river as ‘cover’, pretending to be fishermen and then moving into the park at night to lay thousands of wire snares. The scale of the problem was immense – in one afternoon’s patrol of the Delta in early 2012, over 300 snares were found and removed.
Since then UCF have raised funds and built three ranger posts in key strategic locations to protect key giraffe habitats – at Semanya and Kabim on the Albert Nile, and Punu Rii in the Wangkwar valley. The UWA have also added two more, at Ayago and Ogello. These outposts have enabled the UWA to get “boots on the ground” exactly where they were needed, protecting the giraffe habitat, for the long term.
Semanya and Kabim also form part of the infrastructure for the UWA Marine Unit – whose rangers deliver frontline enforcement along the lake and river boundaries of the park. UCF spearheaded the creation of this unit – training over 80 rangers in boat operations, first aid, safety and rescue, constructing Marine Ranger Stations at Semanya, Kabim and Paraa, and donating the necessary boats and equipment.
The presence of regular day and night marine patrols has severed the routes of entry for the vast majority of poachers, and helps promote sustainable fishing for local communities by preventing the use of illegal fishing techniques.
In tandem with supporting developments in park infrastructure and marine capability, UCF have also trained and equipped law enforcement and prosecution teams in crime analysis techniques as part of the WILD LEO (Wildlife Intelligence and Leadership Development for Law Enforcement Officers) project. By giving UWA law enforcement the ability to analyse criminal activity and prepare compelling evidence for court, the conviction rates for poaching have been achieving unprecedented levels of 97%.
Recovery and protection of this nature is just part of the puzzle. Over the last four years, UCF and UWA have worked closely together to improve the veterinary capacity in the park with the objectives of combatting the threat of injury or disease to the Rothschild’s. This included the provision of the first ever Mobile Vet Response Unit by way of a refurbished Toyota Landcruiser. Previously it would take up to three weeks to respond to an animal in distress – now it takes less than 24 hrs – with a much higher survival rate being a direct result. It also will result in the construction of a Vet Centre & Laboratory for the park, and will enable more sophisticated disease prevention, fieldwork, treatment trials and analysis to take place on site
Indeed, as anyone who has ever visited Murchison knows, the giraffe there suffer from skin lesions – large scaly patches that appear on their chests and necks. For many years, no one has understood the cause of the problem, until UCF helped the UWA vet team take samples from several afflicted giraffes, and then had them tested by vets at The Smithsonian Institute in the United States.
Lab tests established the source of the problem – a type of parasite – and discussions flowed between UWA and UCF as to a strategy for trialing a possible cure. In order to do so, a sample group of giraffe would need to be immobilized using a tranquilizer dart gun, the drug administered, ear-tags applied, and the lesions measured (the latter so we could compare changes in the lesion over time, and the former so that the giraffe that received treatment could be identified in order to do so!). If the treatment trials were successful, the next stage would be to ascertain how the parasite was being transmitted to, or between, the giraffe.
UCF secured funding for the treatment trials to be conducted in late 2015. Dr Pete Black, a Senior Vet at Busch Gardens – an African-themed animal park in the United States – and Rob Yordi, their Animal Curator, are part of the donor team supporting the UCF Giraffe Project, and were keen to visit Uganda to assist on the project. And they were not the only ones – Pete and Rob happen to be the stars of a documentary show called “The Wildlife Docs”, an Emmy award-nominated US television show that broadcasts to households all over America every Saturday morning. The programme follows wildlife vets like Pete and Rob as they face the challenges of treating wild animals from around the world. The opportunity to film the story of the work being done to save the Rothschild’s giraffe in Uganda was too good to miss.
The trials themselves were conducted in early November 2015. Dr Eric Enyel’s UWA Vet team took the lead role, carefully preparing the equipment and the drugs, briefing everyone on expectations and working together as a finely-oiled machine to bring the giraffe down safely. Dr Pete Black and Rob Yordi assisted the UWA team during the actual immobilizations – Rob’s hands-on technique helping to secure the giraffe and Pete assisting with the veterinary work. The film crew from “The Wildlife Docs” captured everything on camera, and UCF provided the overall strategic and logistical support.
A veterinary dart gun – an essential item for such work – was purchased, along with the other vital veterinary field and laboratory equipment ranging from gas canisters to centrifuges. These were donated by UCF to the UWA Murchison Falls Conservation Area Vet Unit, for use in frontline veterinary conservation work and the new veterinary centre that UCF is building there in 2016.
In a few months time, we will go and check up on our long-necked patients, measuring their lesions to monitor any improvement. It’s just part of the story of saving Uganda’s giraffe, and protecting Murchison Falls National Park from the increasing pressures of a changing world. The rare and vulnerable Rothschild’s giraffe is already far safer than it was four years ago, thanks to the dedication and professionalism of UWA Law Enforcement and Veterinary Response Units.
The protection of Murchison’s wildlife is not just driven by the urge to preserve one of the most pristine and biodiverse Protected Areas in the world; Murchison hosts more visitors than any other park in Uganda. At one time it was the most popular park in all of Africa, with up to 15,000 elephant roaming the plains (today there are circa 1,300). The hard work of UWA, with support from organisations like UCF, is allowing wildlife populations to grow once again, and giving Murchison a chance to return to its former glory. With wildlife tourism already the highest earning GDP sector in Uganda’s economy, a large-scale recovery for Murchison would provide exceptional economic security for generations of Ugandans to come. After all, there is no better way to safeguard our country’s natural heritage than to make it so valuable it is not worth losing.