February 2016

Samburu’s Reticulated giraffes charm all

Male impala in Samburu National Reserve with the iconic bread basket – Ololokwe in the background

A trio of giraffe browses on the thorn trees on a plain of sun-burnished grass in the dry season. The sand-bottom luggas run dry except for the Ewaso Nyiro flowing its way through the reserve, providing the only water for the animals.

John Doherty of the Reticulated Giraffe Project knows the giraffes by sight. “Their names are written on their skins,” he says. “There’s Tailess, Finger and Mermaid’s Purse.”

We’re not even that close to see the details but Doherty knows almost all the 500 Reticulated giraffes that wander in and out of Samburu National Reserve by sight.

Born with an innate fascination for animals, Doherty started the Reticulated Giraffe Project while studying for his PhD in the reserve a decade ago.

“They are three bulls,” he continues as we drive closer. Looking through our binoculars, it’s easy to identify Tailess – he has no tail – probably bitten off by a big cat. Finger’s white markings on the neck don’t quite go all the way to the mane but look like fingers clasping his neck. It’s easy to see why Doherty says their names are written on their skins.

However these are just nick-names – including names given by the local tribes like the Gabbra and Samburu. “Many name a giraffe in memory of their ancestor,” tells Doherty.

All the Reticulated giraffes of the north-eastern territory that the project covers are identified by using a pattern-recognition software where both sides of the giraffe are photographed.

Once Common

Giraffes once covered the savannah grasslands of Africa. Nobody thought they would go out of fashion.

But in the last decade, some 30% may have been lost due to habitat loss and poaching. Kenya is the only country with the most giraffe species – the Rothschild, Maasai and Reticulated.

Reticulated giraffe numbers have crashed by more than 80% – from about 30,000 a decade ago to fewer than 5,000 today. Their stronghold is north-eastern Kenya and some isolated populations in Somalia.

“This year we plan to put GPS collars on six to understand their movement patterns,” continues Doherty. “It’s important because of the projects like LAPSSET (Lamu Port Sotuth Sudan Ethiopia Transport road). We need to have mitigation measures put in place.”

Already the new tarmac road from Isiolo to Moyale is claiming lives with fast-moving vehicles like the pregnant Reticulated giraffe crossing from Samburu into Shaba National Reserve. A vehicle smashed into her legs killing her instantly and her unborn baby.

Doherty has many tales to tell of the giraffes being monitored. A few weeks ago, a new born calf was splashing around in the Ewaso Nyiro with its mother. Then came the croc and snapped it – and this was happening as Doherty, his assistant and guests watched. For 30 minutes the foal struggled as the pair got washed down stream.

“We thought the foal was gone,” says Doherty. Then two hours later came a call from a Samburu ranger called Lesil who fought off the croc and saved the foal. Check it out on http://www.reticulatedgiraffeproject.net/RGP/TWIGA.html. Understandably, the foal’s been named Lucky.

In the cool of the day, we return to Samburu Intrepids Camp – for regulations demand no night-driving. We miss the leopard with her cub but spot elephants and a sandgrouse, a beautiful bird that soaks itself in water in this arid land and flies back to the chicks with drenched feathers. The chicks then suck on them.

Gerenuks stand on their hind legs to browse on the higher branches – the only antelope that does so. Nicknamed the giraffe-antelope (Swala-twiga in Kiswahili) this russet coloured antelope has a long neck and is found in the northern region.

We’ve had two days searching for the rare Grevy’s zebra and only seen one during the Great Grevy’s Zebra Rally 2016.

It’s Murphy’s law.

Just as we are leaving Samburu National Reserve, a herd of three females with four foals emerge. Females with foals need water every day – and the Ewaso Nyiro provides them with it.

Samburu National Reserve

It’s 350 north – the road is tarmac all the way to Archer’s Post near the gate. Please carry your ID cards. Check with tour agent for current entry rates.

Samburu Intrepids Camp www.heritage-eastafrica.com  is on the banks of the Ewaso Nyiro River. It’s got beautiful luxury tents including enormous family tents with lots for children to do.

For more on Grevy’s zebra: www.grevyszebratrust.org

Reticulated giraffe: www.reticulatedgiraffeproject.net

Remember to carry your national ID or passport for proof of identity