How did they cross the equator into the southern hemisphere?

Above: The rare Reticulated giraffe in Tsavo West National Park on 30 April 2022

Published: The East African Nation media 1-8 July 2022

“No…am I seeing things?”


“See…there they are…Reticulated giraffes!”

If I had been alone in Tsavo West National Park on a game drive watching a pair of clear patterned giraffes with a glossy red-brown coat browsing in the thickets – or if they had vanished in the few seconds that it took my brother Raju to halt, reverse and take the photograph as evidence – nobody would have believed that we saw a pair of Reticulated giraffes in Tsavo West National Park.

The pair vanished in a few minutes deeper into the thick scrub – not to be seen again for the entire day we spent on a game drive in Kenya’s largest protected national park that is the northern extension of Tanzania’s Mkomazi National Park.

Maasai giraffe with Nguruman escarpment in southern Kenya. Copyright Rupi Mangat

Instead, the regular Tsavo West giraffes which are the Maasai giraffes with the splotchy patterned coat gave us that signature ‘down-the-nose-look’, calmly browsing on the thorny acacia. The world’s tallest land mammal also boasts a really long tongue that’s stretches two-foot-rulers long with lips so thick that no thorn can stop the animal from reaching the tasty green leaves of the thorn trees. 

But the mysterious pair of Reticulated giraffes in Tsavo West which is south of the equator really boggled the mind. They could not have walked in from neighbouring Tanzania’s Mkomazi National Park because Tanzania only has one species of giraffes – the Maasai.

So what were these giraffes that are now listed as one of the world’s rarest doing south of the equator?

Writing to the Kenya Wildlife Service research department with the picture attached revealed nothing several weeks later. KWS is the institution tasked with the responsibility of managing our wildlife. I called John Doherty of the Reticulated Giraffe Project based in Samburu (north of the equator) and sent him that one iconic picture.

He couldn’t believe it.

“The most southerly part they have been seen is in Tsavo East National Park,” said the rare Reticulated giraffe researcher. I had already read that trawling through the internet. But again I have never seen or heard anyone ever mention a Reticulated giraffe in Tsavo East. The only source for this information is on the KWS website.

“Maybe they were translocated?” mused Doherty.

If they were, this would have made big news. Moving the world’s tallest mammal that’s almost two-stories high with a neck longer than an average person’s height could hardly go unnoticed.

Or did this pair of giraffes calmly stroll from northern Kenya via Meru National Park and into Tsavo East to cross the busy truckers’ road that is the Nairobi-Mombasa highway one fine day?

Range of the Reticulated Giraffe

According to the Giraffe Conservation Foundation (GCF) dedicated to giraffe conservation in the wild throughout Africa there are four distinct species of giraffe in Africa – Masai, Southern, Northern and Reticulated giraffe, with several subspecies.

Rothschild Giraffes in Ruma National Park. Copyright Rupi Mangat

And all four giraffe species and their subspecies live in geographically distinct areas – save for the Rothschild giraffe in Kenya that lost its ground in the 1970s in western Kenya when the land was turned into a settlement area and opened to agriculture. Their new home became Nairobi’s Giraffe Centre from where today the offsprings are relocated to new homes like Soysambu conservancy bordering Lake Elmenteita and the neighbouring Lake Nakuru National Park.

GCF’s count of the giraffes in the wild throughout Africa today is a paltry 117,000 today.

Reticulated giraffes are a dryland species once common in the Horn of Africa and the drylands of Kenya’s north of the equator. “Over the past century, their numbers have been reduced so much that they are now considered at risk of extinction,” says Doherty. “At the turn of the millennium, there were some 38,000 remaining.”

In the two decades since, there are fewer than 25% of that and almost all are restricted to the north-east of Kenya. Estimates are between 28,500 and 15.950 global population in the wild.

Declining Numbers

Life in Kenya’s northern drylands is tough, subject to frequent and long periods of drought. With a growing human population including refugees from recent conflicts in Somalia and South Sudan, wildlife is threatened.

According to the Reticulated Giraffe Project, the people of the north are mostly nomadic pastoralists, dependent on their cattle, camels, sheep and goats, and subject to poverty. Automatic weapons have become widespread during the past 25 years with law enforcement a challenge.

Reticulated giraffes, like all other giraffe species, are hunted or snared because they yield more meat than any other animal.

Recent research by John Kabue Njueini, graduating from the University of Nairobi, reveals organized cartels of poachers target giraffes around Tsavo because it’s a cheap source of protein. Njueini’s research reveals some 500 poached every year. With a population of 4,000 Maasai giraffe in Tsavo, they may be slowly sliding into extinction.

Africa is the last home of the giraffe, walking in from China via India seven million years ago.

The modern giraffe evolved a million years ago in eastern Africa.

International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Listing on the Red List

Rothschild giraffe: Critically endangered, one step short of becoming extinct in the wild.

The Reticulated and the Maasai have stepped up from Vulnerable to Endangered.