Research


Ecology and conservation of the Rothschild’s giraffe Giraffa camelopardalis rothschildi in Kenya

A PhD study by Zoe Muller and supervised by Prof. Stephen Harris. Partially funded by the University of Bristol, the Giraffe Conservation Foundation and UFAW.


Group of Rothschild's Giraffe

Introduction

Giraffe populations have suffered a 30% decline over the past ten years with the current numbers estimated to be less than 100,000 across Africa. This decline is due to several factors including habitat encroachment, blocking of migration routes, illegal hunting for meat and skins and increasing human-wildlife conflict.

Historically, giraffe have been classified as one species and split into nine recognised sub-species. However new evidence is starting to suggest that this view is not correct and there may actually be as many as six separate species of giraffe across Africa. Recent genetic analysis found that giraffes can be separated into six distinct groups that are not interbreeding and are reproductively isolated from each other. Surprisingly, some of the sub-species whose ranges overlap are not interbreeding, suggesting that some biological or evolutionary process is keeping them separate.

Since giraffe have always been managed as one species it is commonly thought that they are abundant in the wild and they have never been a high conservation priority. Given this new genetic evidence and suggestion of several distinct evolutionary groups (each containing unique genetic material), it appears that classifying all giraffe into the same species actually obscures the reality that some sub-species are on the brink of extinction.

An article about giraffe speciation can be seen here

Rothschild giraffe

Rothschild Giraffe

The Rothschild giraffe is one such ‘sub’-species whose population has declined so far that they are now very near extinction. There are less than 670 individuals remaining in the wild and all populations are confined to managed conservation areas. Once abundant and wide ranging across Sudan, Uganda and Kenya, the Rothschild giraffe is now extinct in Sudan, only one population remains in Uganda (Murchison Falls NP) and eleven populations remain in Kenya. All populations in Kenya are ‘artificial’ in that they were created by translocations carried out in the 1970s.

The Rothschild giraffe has also never been subject to scientific study and we know almost nothing about its wild ecology and behaviour. Other giraffe studies highlight huge differences in ecology and behaviour between different giraffe groups across Africa and given that the Rothschild giraffe may soon be classified as a separate species it is imperative that we know as much as possible about it if we are to implement effective conservation strategies in the future. The Rothschild giraffe is classified as Endangered by the IUCN.

Rothschild giraffe

The Project

The Rothschild Giraffe Project has been established to address the complete lack of scientific knowledge of the Rothschild giraffe in the wild and develop effective conservation strategies for the future. The project will be studying two of the largest remaining groups of Rothschild giraffe in Kenya.

Aims

All populations of Rothschild giraffe are now confined to managed conservation areas, i.e. National Parks and conservancies. There is evidence that the populations in Kenya are starting to ‘outgrow’ their ecosystems and exert too high a pressure on the environments that support them, leading to increasing tree mortality and consistent failure to recruit young. This problem will be addressed as part of the Rothschild Giraffe Project.

All results will be fed back to the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), Giraffe Conservation Foundation (GCF), IUCN/SSC International Giraffe Working Group (IGWG), wildlife managers and other interested parties to ensure that the results reach the relevant people to enable effective conservation strategies to be developed.

This project is also working collaboratively with the Kenya Wildlife Service to develop the new Giraffe Conservation Strategy for Kenya. Overall, this project will make a significant contribution to the long term conservation and management of one of Africa’s most charismatic and under-studied large mammals.

For more information on this project, please visit the research website www.girafferesearch.com

Volunteer field assistant positions are sometimes available for this project for a minimum of three months. Please contact Zoe for more details.

Contact details

Zoe Muller
Mammal Research Unit
School of Biological Sciences
University of Bristol
Woodland Road
Bristol BS8 1UG, U.K.

Telephone: 0117 928 7593
Email: Zoe Muller