Maasai giraffe at Arusha National Park, Tanzania.

Maasai giraffe at Arusha National Park, Tanzania.

On one my earliest trips to Africa I was fortunate to take up residence in an old style canvas tent in an acacia forest very near the Ndutu plain in northern Tanzania.  It was a lovely experience in every way.  The tiny camp was perfectly integrated into the woodland.  Lions could be heard in the darkness at the perimeter every night and the ubiquitous hyena was within a stone’s throw of the tent flap on most mornings.   The tents were in reasonably good condition – no leaks  – and pervaded with the stale, mildly offensive odor of aging canvas.  But they were cool and comfortable, with sizable mesh windows on all sides to optimize ventilation.  It was a disturbance at one of those tent windows in the wee hours of a chilly morning that resulted in one of my most memorable Africa experiences.

 

I was sleeping soundly near the front flap but was awakened at about 2 am by an odd pulling noise at the opposite end of the tent.  I remained still and listened for some time, maybe ten minutes or more, before rolling out of the bag to investigate.  The tearing sound was deep and rhythmic, and the back canvas wall undulated very slightly with each pulse.   As silently as possible, I moved into position and peered through the mesh to see an adult giraffe head pull up directly opposite me.  In the light of a full moon it was obvious that the giraffe was a young male.  He’d been doubled over, systematically ripping tall grass from the base of the tent for a late night snack.  And I’d caught him in mid-pull.  His face was directly in front of mine, just inches away through the mesh.  I doubt that he could actually see me because of the reflection of the bright moonlight on the cloth, but he certainly sensed my presence.  After a standoff of about ten seconds, he slowly raised his head and pulled his body upright.   He looked around, sensing that all was not quite right with the world, and methodically strolled away into the trees.  For reasons inexplicable, I’ve thought about that big guy many times over the years.  He was a shy, unassuming sort of fellow who is probably now living his life peacefully in the heart of Ndutu’s acacia scrub, striding gracefully through the dust, spreading his body wide to dip low for a drink at the waterhole, and standing tall in the glow of a late day crimson sun to chew on the branches of a thorn tree.  If he’s like most of his species, he will live his entire life without threatening or harming another creature.

 

A reasonable person would never suspect that these gentle, unobtrusive, and somewhat implausible creatures could ever be targeted by big game hunters.    Stalking and shooting a giraffe would be a simple enough endeavor.  In most parts of Africa these elevated creatures are at least somewhat habituated to humans.  Maneuvering into a firing position would be something that literally anyone could do.  So there’s no challenge for the “sportsman” from that perspective, and no “tracking” points to be earned.    As a prey animal, the giraffe is most certainly an outsized target … that is, extremely difficult to miss.  So there are no marksmanship bragging rights to be gained from plugging one.  And because they are such docile creatures, no hunter could ever convincingly claim “… and there I was, and the huge devil was charging me full on with teeth bared and claws extended!”  So it’s not possible to score any courage points off these majestic animals.  So why would anyone, under any circumstances, want to destroy one of them?

But destroy them they do.   And graphic photographs of well-armed, smiling hunters with dead giraffes coiled around them continue to permeate the internet.   I’ve seen several of them within the last few days.  The first reaction is always incredulity.  Did the hunter really shoot that animal?  In the name of all that is sane and reasonable … why?  And then there’s the elemental curiosity.  What sort of vapid, lifeless and desensitized brain must be required to take joy in the suffering and death of one of these colorful giants?  And there’s always deep sorrow for the animal, perhaps 15 to 20 years old and in its prime.    Its death an unfortunate consequence of timing, geography and senseless brutality.

This image speaks for itself.

This image speaks for itself.

At another level, the death of the animal represents some fundamental dichotomies of nature … the peaceful vs. the bellicose, the graceful vs. the graceless and the beautiful vs. the grotesque.  One can only hope that homo sapiens may one day advance to the point that its denizens are no longer capable of reaping obscene pleasure from the destruction of the defenseless.  But we are not close to that day at present.  The hunting business seems to be expanding, particularly in southern Africa.   There are breeding operations in South Africa that raise lions from cubs for the sole purpose of being shot by “hunters” when they become adults.  It remains legal to hunt antelopes of all types and that most beautiful of great cats, the leopard, is not exempt from this twisted form of human entertainment.  Most absurdly and pathetically, one of Africa’s most endangered animals, the rhino, is also legally hunted.

 

The gorgeous quote below is from John Heminway’s “African Journeys”:

 

“I believe there is no sickness of the heart so great it cannot be cured by a dose of Africa. Families must go there to learn why they belong together on this earth, adolescents to discover humility, lovers to plumb old but untried wells of passion, honeymooners to seal marriages with a shared sense of bafflement, those shopworn with life to find a tonic for futility, the aged to recognize a symmetry to twilight.  I know this all sounds a bit much, but if I have ever seen magic, it has been in Africa.”

 

May his words remain eternally true, but the heart of humanity must grow to respect, revere and preserve all species in order for this to happen.  I’m thinking that a newfound, well-deserved reverence for the giraffe would be a logical place to start.

A particularly beautiful species, the reticulated giraffe.  Mother and youngster at Samburu, Kenya.

A particularly beautiful species, the reticulated giraffe. Mother and youngster at Samburu, Kenya.

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Mara giraffes ...

Mara giraffes ...

There are nine distinct subspecies of giraffe ranging throughout the African continent. With respect to pure numbers, none of the nine are in particularly good health, but at least three of the varieties are in extremis. The West African, or Nigerian giraffe, is numerically closest to extinction, with just over 200 animals residing in an isolated area near the city of Niamey, the capital of Niger. The Nubian giraffe population, which occupies a small range in western Ethiopia, is estimated at about 250 animals. The Rothschild’s giraffe inhabits the Lake Nakuru area of Kenya and parts of Uganda. Less than a thousand Rothschild’s exist in the wild.

The plight of the world’s tallest mammal is symptomatic of the larger challenges currently facing all of Africa’s wildlife. With mounting pressures from human encroachment and illegal poaching, the animals are confined to isolated pockets of ever-decreasing size. The World Wildlife Fund, the African Wildlife Foundation and a number of other organizations have done stellar work in the fields of conservation and education, but success can only be fully realized with constant vigilance and tireless exertion. The situation is sufficiently dire that many of the most endangered species merit their own support organizations. Such is the case with our long-legged friends.

The Giraffe Conservation Foundation (GCF) was established in 2009 by Dr. Julian Fennessy, who is widely recognized as one of African wildlife’s most stalwart defenders. The GCF’s vision statement is straightforward. It is:

“The Giraffe Conservation Foundation’s vision is that of a sustainable future where all giraffe populations and subspecies are protected and secure in the wild.”

The tenets of the Giraffe Conservation Foundation mission statement, taken from the GCF website, are listed below:

  • Promote the importance and profile of giraffe conservation on the international stage.
  • Secure viable, and protect existing, habitat for giraffe and other wildlife.
  • Support dedicated and innovative research to better understand giraffe ecology, conservation and management.
  • Establish the current status of all giraffe populations and subspecies to support and inform their conservation and management.
  • Identify key threats to giraffe and innovative ways to mitigate these.
  • Develop a world class network of individuals and organisations dedicated to securing the future of giraffe.
  • Provide a platform and forum for giraffe related research, conservation and management discussion.
  • Increase awareness about the plight of giraffe.
  • Promote and support giraffe conservation initiatives and work collaboratively with local communities to develop a sustainable future for both people and wildlife.
  • Establish GCF as the key focal organisation for giraffe conservation and management.
  • Maintain a close working relationship with the IGWG to provide comprehensive educational and technical support.
  • To be the leading international organisation for giraffe conservation and management.

The GCF may be a fledgling organization but its goals are ambitious, and in my estimation, extremely worthwhile. The superbly led Foundation already has a number of initiatives in the works. Included among these (excerpts taken from the GCF website):

The Kenya Giraffe Project. This project intends to establish a baseline ecological and conservation “health” assessment of key giraffe populations of Kenya’s three distinct subspecies.  Working with the Kenyan Wildlife Service (KWS), key NGOs, e. g. KLCT and African Wildlife Foundation, and private landowners and communities, the project hopes to build robust ecological assessments of the populations.  The collaborative efforts seek to provide capacity building and ongoing information gathering to facilitate the long-term success of the project and understanding of the giraffe as a keystone species.

The Rothschild’s Giraffe Project. This effort involves a comprehensive scientific review of this vanishing subspecies. The project will report on the ecology, behavior and distribution of the Rothschild’s giraffe and investigate the effects the remaining populations are having on their environments. The data collected will be employed to develop conservation strategies to preserve and propagate the animals.

The Reticulated Giraffe Project. The Reticulated giraffe is not the least numerous, but with a decrease in numbers of at least 80% – from 30,000 to perhaps 5,000 – over the past 10 years alone, it is probably the subspecies in most rapid decline. By comparison with other megafaunal taxa, giraffes have been relatively little studied and most investigations have focused on the southern of two major clades. There are no published studies of the biology or ecology of reticulated giraffes, which may represent the northern clade’s earliest discrete lineage. The Reticulated Giraffe Project aims to address this paucity of information by investigating aspects of the animals’ behavioral ecology and of the population processes operating upon them. Social network studies will be coupled with analysis of DNA and reproductive hormones to interpret dispersion patterns; bioacoustics will be employed to investigate the possible use of infrasound as a medium of communication; movements, behavior, energy expenditure and environmental parameters will be measured using remote-sensing devices; and a combination of telemetry, direct sampling and a collaborative network of observers will be used to explore the demography of the population as a whole. The results will inform the conservation and management strategies for the remaining reticulated giraffes.

There are more projects ongoing and in the works. From my personal perspective, it’s gratifying to see a dedicated conservation effort fully focused on protecting this elegant, uniquely beautiful but often ignored animal. The giraffe holds an iconic place in the pantheon of Africa’s wildlife, and no effort should be spared to ensure its long term survival. To know more about the GCF, have a look at their website at the address below.

www.giraffeconservation.org

Maasai giraffe trio in the Mara

Maasai giraffe trio in the Mara

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Maasai giraffes in a driving rain.  The giraffe on the far left has at least five birds on its forelegs.

Maasai giraffes in a driving rain. The giraffe on the far left has at least five birds on its forelegs.

A friend of mine recently asked  …”how do you photograph giraffes?” My initial but unspoken reaction was … (1) hold camera to eyeball (2) peer through viewfinder (3) lock focus, and (4) depress shutter button. But after a few minutes of consideration it struck me that it really was a damn fine question. That’s because, without actually thinking about it, I’ve evolved a specific strategy for photographing not only giraffes, but most all of East Africa’s animals.

The giraffe is both a beautiful and beautifully implausible animal. Outlandishly designed, they are photogenic even if they’re standing at a roadside doing nothing. But under certain circumstances they offer opportunities for world class images. I’ve outlined a few of those circumstances in the subparagraphs below …

a) Kenya is home to a couple of varieties of oxpecker … the red-billed and the yellow-billed. These birds ride the large mammals to pick off insects or stray vegetation… and as a general rule the big critters appreciate having them around. Oxpeckers love giraffes, and if the photographer catches one in just the right location the results can be spectacular. A photograph like the one below requires luck, to be sure … but it’s also made possible by maintaining awareness of the birds, where they are, where they’re likely to perch, etc. Patience is also important … sometimes the birds won’t immediately move into position, the giraffe looks away, etc. But good things come to those who wait (sometimes) and watch.

Giraffe with yellow-billed oxpecker in the launching position.

Giraffe with yellow-billed oxpecker in the launching position.

b) Male giraffes compete for mating rights in the traditional way … by fighting. But they don’t have fists, large antlers or disproportionate incisors … they only have necks. And they use them to swing their heads at each other in hopes of achieving violent contact anywhere north of their opponent’s forelegs. The squabbles may seem ridiculous to the casual viewer — like slow motion play fighting — but in reality the process is executed in deadly earnest. The animals are quite capable of inflicting serious injury on each other. But what’s dangerous to the animals in this case is fortuitous for the photographer. Their lunges and contortions make them exceptional subjects for the camera. The “necking” pair below was captured at Samburu.

Reticulated giraffes "necking" at Samburu ... winner gets to mate.

Reticulated giraffes "necking" at Samburu ... winner gets to mate.

c) A solo giraffe portrait can make a memorable photo, but I’ve found that if you catch two together in a close up the results can be much more dramatic. The key to success on this is locking focus on the nearest giraffe and waiting patiently for a second or even third one to move into the frame. There are also times when the giraffe(s) to the rear of the subject don’t necessarily need to be physically close. The second shot below illustrates this point. The two “necking” animals in the near distance make this photo much more successful than it would otherwise be.

Maasai giraffes ... central Mara.

Maasai giraffes ... central Mara.

Young reticulated giraffe with necking males in the background.

Young reticulated giraffe with necking males in the background.

d) Giraffes tend to be shy. They’re a little less shy, I think, while they’re eating. Their facial expressions become almost comedic as they chew … and if you can catch a full on frontal shot while they have a mouthful of leaves you can capture an amusing image. If you’re a professional this is a particularly good thing, because there are many animal lovers who collect unusual or whimsical giraffe shots.

Mastication in progress ... Samburu.

Mastication in progress ... Samburu.

e) There are times when you fill the frame with the animal and there are times when you want to capture some of the surrounding environment to place the subject in context. That’s why it’s important to look up from the viewfinder occasionally and maybe even shift to a wider angle lens. The shot below captures some of the acacias and scrub vegetation at Ndutu, Tanzania … I think it’s much more effective than a straight up, full-framed portrait of one of these animals would be.

Bookends at Ndutu.

Bookends at Ndutu.

d) Baby giraffes are precious and cute … and they make lovely photo subjects. This pretty much applies to the little ones of all species. Evidence below:

Baby reticulated giraffe peering around mother at Samburu.

Baby reticulated giraffe peering around mother at Samburu.

I’ll be writing about techniques for photographing several other species in the coming weeks but I certainly welcome questions from anyone at any time. Both my cell number and email address are listed on my website at www.savannaimages.com. Up next … Zebras.

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