Translocating world’s tallest animals no walk in the park

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Having witnessed the translocation of the Uganda kob from Murchison Falls national park to Kidepo Valley national park in May this year, my journey to Uganda’s largest national park for the translocation of giraffes, this time, was one filled with imaginations of how these beasts are chased, captured and loaded onto trucks.

Throughout the seven-hour journey, I was eager to witness the capture, especially knowing that these were no kobs that were chased with high speed cars into a boma, with rangers even capturing some of the fast, goat-like animals with bare hands; with a giraffe’s sharp eyesight and renowned powerful kicks that can knock out the fearsome big cats in the wild, it would not be an easy task.

The boma, which had been constructed at Tangi near Pakwach, already had 10 giraffes that had been earlier captured, but none of Uganda Wildlife Authority’s (UWA) veterinarians and rangers could describe how these beasts had been captured.

“Wait until tomorrow and witness by yourself,” is all Simplicious Gessa, UWA’s public relations officer, would say, every time he heard me asking the UWA field staff.  

On a given day, one or two giraffes are captured since a single capture can take several hours.

As early as 7am, the team was already on the ground where the giraffes had been spotted. From a given herd, the team identified a particular giraffe that everyone had to keep their eyes on, before it was shot down with a dart gun.

“Instead of a bullet, we use a dart that has an anaesthetic drug, which brings it down. But we have to be very fast to get it so that it does not fall badly because then, it may break its neck and that would be a loss,” said UWA’s deputy director for planning, Edgar Bhuhanga.

And for these elegantly tall beasts, there is certainly a lot of neck to break if they fell suddenly from their great height!

Once the drug begins weakening the giraffe, the assigned people run to put ropes around it. The ropes help in safely bringing it down, before veterinarians take over, to carry out necessary tests before it loading it onto a tractor-drawn crate to the holding boma.

BACKGROUND

This exercise was a result of a three-year study by Michael Brown, a PhD student at Dartmouth College, a private research university in Hanover, New Hampshire, United States.

Brown’s study was basically around the behaviour, and how best the giraffes in Murchison Falls national park can be managed.

He was attracted to this particular park by the fact that it has nearly 75 per cent of the world’s population of the Rothschild giraffe species.

“For three years, he has been studying each giraffe individually, photographing each of them and creating a bio-data for each of them using the patterns; each has its own distinctive pattern, it is like fingerprints,” Dr Julian Fennessy, the director of Giraffe Conservation Foundation (GCF), told The Observer.

Fennessy and Brown were part of a team of experts from UWA, Uganda Wildlife Education Centre (UWEC), Makerere University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, Animal Resources and Bio-Security (COVAB), GCF and Cheyenne Mountain Zoo of Colorado, USA, who took part in the two-week exercise of translocating giraffes from the northern sector to the southern sector of Murchison Falls national park.

The two sectors are separated by the river Nile, and connected by ferry service. The northern sector has for long enjoyed a far bigger animal population than the southern.

The translocation was based on Brown’s discovery that there were 1,250 giraffes in Murchison Falls national park, 500 more than UWA’s earlier estimate of 750 giraffes.

These beasts, according to Brown’s study, are being threatened by the upcoming development projects such oil explorations and construction of power dams such as the 840MW Ayago hydropower dam.

“The range of development projects in the northern sector can impact negatively on the giraffes stock. Being that this park is separated by the Nile, and giraffes, unlike other animals like elephants, etc, can’t swim across the river to go to the other part of the park, they are concentrated in the northern sector; that is why we have to help them cross that natural barrier,” Patrick Atimnedi, UWA’s manager for veterinary services, said.

The first translocation was in 2015 when 19 giraffes were moved from the northern sector to the southern sector.

Apart from one giraffe that was killed and eaten by locals in Buliisa, the rest adapted so well, giving UWA reason to move more of the world’s tallest animals.

At least 20 giraffes were moved to the Bunyoro side of the park and two others were taken to UWEC in Entebbe.

THE DRIVE

Loading the giraffes onto the translocation truck is not as hard and as delicate as capturing and transporting them. It took less than five minutes to get five giraffes onto the truck, but it took about two and half hours to drive them on a journey of 43km from Tangi to a grassland in the newly opened honeymoon trail inside Budongo forest.

On the first day of the translocation, one of the giraffes collapsed within three minutes of set-off from Tangi. Veterinarians laboured in vain to get it up and then painfully resolved to first offload it. For several minutes, they tried to resuscitate it, to no avail.

It only showed signs of normalising after cold water was poured over it. The scene was similar to one in a hospital ward where medics pace up and down in a dash to save a life, only that this time we were in the middle of a jungle road as veterinarians struggled to save the giraffe’s life.

A GCF vet ran to one of the last vehicles in the long convoy to pick an oxygen cylinder that was applied for the giraffe to fully recover.

They congratulated themselves as it finally got up and went back to the wilderness to graze, reducing the translocating giraffes by one.

Apart from creating a deficit in the numbers, the particular giraffe was the one that had been fitted with a tracking device on its horn, implying that without it, the conservationists cannot keep track of that herd of four.

And the animals do not take the transportation lying down, either. One of the rangers is still nursing a broken arm, after one of the giraffes head-butted him inside the truck.

He is lucky the blow was not to his head, or chest!

Still, the team was happy the southern bank had more giraffes, a boost to tourism in the popular park, seeing as that side of the river has several budget safari lodges whose guests usually cross to the northern bank to see many of the animals.

Paraa and Chobe safari lodges, both high-class facilities ran by Marasa Investments, dominate the northern sector.

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The Observer

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