The Uganda mountain gorillas, the black rhino, the chimpanzees, are the African animals most people think of as endangered. But a species of giraffe is actually one of the most vulnerable animals on the continent.
Only about 300 Rothschild giraffes, the tallest of the majestic creatures at a height of more than six metres, are left in the world. The number is up from a low of about 120 in the 1980s, but the continued human-wildlife conflict in Kenya is again threatening the species. Another two species, the reticulated giraffe and the Maasai giraffe, are common throughout Kenya and Uganda.
In the quiet, leafy Nairobi suburb of Langata, the Giraffe Centre has been fighting to save the Rothschild giraffe from extinction for three decades. The team of conservationists protects and breeds the animals to increase the population and educates Kenyan schoolchildren to ensure the species’ continued survival into the next generation.
Betty Leslie-Melville, an American who married a British-Kenyan, discovered that the Rothschild giraffe was nearly extinct in 1979. Only a few dozen were left in an area of western Kenya that was scheduled to be divided up into plots and sold to farmers. Mrs Leslie-Melville and her husband, Jock, brought two giraffes to their property in Nairobi and started the African Fund for Endangered Wildlife.
The Rothschild giraffe’s normal habitat is in prime agricultural land in western Kenya and Uganda, and they have been all but squeezed out by human encroachment. The giraffes that are bred at the centre are relocated to protected wildlife sanctuaries across Kenya.
“This giraffe took a beating,” said Christine Odhiambo, the manager of the Giraffe Centre. “They were not welcome in the agricultural zone.”
Poaching is also threatening the species these days. Semi-nomadic people hunt the giraffes for meat and use the skin to make crafts to sell to tourists.
The Rothschild giraffe has a distinct orange-brown patchwork of geometric spots separated by pale lines, making its hide resembles a piece of dry, cracked earth. Humans are its biggest predator, although large cats can take down a baby. A few weeks ago, a leopard killed a young giraffe at the centre.
“The giraffes are gentle and they do well with people,” said Ms Odhiambo. “It is a good chance to teach about conservation.”
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