The rains have delayed this season. Usually, by this time of the year, the skies are dark with near daily billowing storm clouds. Instead, they are dark with the migrating Abdim’s stork, which spiral above in the hundreds. Taking advantage of the delayed onset of the rainy season, we easily maneuvered the terrain in our Landcruiser. Without the long grasses to obscure warthog holes and termite mounds and without the muddy waters filling the luggas, the off-road driving is relatively simple, making surveys and behavioral observations an unobstructed endeavor.
This particular field season was busy for the research programme in Uganda. In addition to the annual population census, DNA sampling and collaring in Kidepo Valley National Park (outlined in the Kidepo Valley Field Report), we also conducted our seasonal demographic surveys and resource selection studies to better understand the ecology of giraffe in Murchison Falls National Park. Although the terrain is easier to navigate, the giraffe tend to be more dispersed in smaller groups throughout the park during the prolonged dry season, making the work equally challenging and equally rewarding
Understanding the Status and Ecology of Rothschild’s/Nubian Giraffe In Uganda’s Kidepo Valley National Park
Note: The following entry is taken from a field report written for the Giraffe Conservation Foundation following the third annual survey of Kidepo Valley National Park. Check out their work at giraffeconservation.org to learn more about the efforts of this quality organization
Michael B. Brown, Fiona Mackay, Raj Hunjan, Erin Haycraft, Stephanie Edling, Jimmy Sanders, Paul Round, Herbert Kasozi and Julian Fennessy
In the rugged wilderness of Uganda’s northeastern Karamoja region, nestled in the striking valleys along the mountainous borders with South Sudan and Kenya, Kidepo Valley National Park hosts a diverse assemblage of unique wildlife. Historically, Kidepo Valley National Park was home to one of the largest populations of giraffe in Uganda, but years of civil unrest decimated the region’s wildlife, including the rare Rothschild’s/Nubian giraffe. Despite the ensuing political stability, the giraffe population of Kidepo Valley National Park has yet to recover to a level beyond jeopardy. Since 2015, the Giraffe Conservation Foundation and partners have been working to develop a systematic population monitoring programme and implement a series of associated scientific studies to better understand the population status and the unique nature of the threats that this small and imperiled population faces in Uganda’s frontier region.
A Brief History of Giraffe in Kidepo Valley National Park
Located in north eastern Uganda, and bordering South Sudan and Kenya, Kidepo Valley National Park is comprised of the Narus River Valley in the south and west and the Kidepo River Valley in the north and east (Harrington & Ross 1974). The Park’s rivers are seasonal, with the Narus River Valley being the only location of water sources during the dry season (Aleper & Moe 2006). Ranging in altitude from approximately 1,000 metres to 2,750 metres above sea level (Aleper & Moe 2006) an array of habitat is found within the Park, from arid plains and open savannas, to hills, rocky outcroppings, and mountain ranges. The park itself is an especially biodiverse region, with over 80 species of mammals found within the Park borders (Aleper & Moe 2006).
In 1962, the year of Uganda’s Independence, 1,259 km2 of Kidepo Valley National Park was initially gazetted with an additional 181 km2 being added to the Park in 1967. During the time leading up to the Park’s official designation, poaching was relatively small scale and localized with traditional weapons. From the late 1970s, however, the severity of these threats changed as Idi Amin’s army was overthrown by the Tanzanian army and Obote forces, resulting in a proliferation of firearms among the local Karamajong people. This development led to increased violence in the region, including poaching and cattle raiding. In 1986, Museveni became President of Uganda, but this change in leadership had limited impact on the region. Since travel to the Park was limited by air, few people ventured to this region and both tourism and security remained largely underdeveloped. Interestingly, even the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) avoided the region. Under-resourced Park staff could do little throughout this period to mitigate the threats which included grazing in the Park and transhumance activities between Kenya, Uganda and South Sudan. Unfortunately, a number of wildlife species became locally extinct, including rhino, roan antelope and African wild dog, while giraffe numbers were reduced to an estimated three individuals.
In 2001 various voluntary and forced disarmament programmes were instituted to reduce the estimated 40,000 guns in the Karamajong region. However, this policy lead to a virtual state of war between the local people and the Ugandan army. By 2006 the last remnants of the LRA were forced out of northern Uganda which opened up the route into the region and for the first time in twenty years the Park was safely accessible to drive into (Uganda Wildlife Foundation 2014).
Kites and Abdim's storks
Spiral as clouds into clouds
Dry season migrants
From a purely reductionist ecological perspective, it is impossible to fully understand giraffe without understanding the plants that they eat. At the most fundamental level - on the molecular scale - giraffe are comprised entirely of the same proteins, molecules and atoms that comprise the browse they consume. In this way, from an evolutionary view, diet selection is an mechanism to ingest some type of molecular stoichiometry that is most conducive to survival and reproduction. Perhaps
ore simply stated, nutrition is key for making more giraffe and healthier giraffe.
As the seasons progress and landscape responds, we have returned to Murchison Falls National Park to continue our ongoing giraffe population studies. After a few days in the capital city, the open skies and broad horizons of the Ugandan bush offer a welcome contrast to the vehicles and concrete. The change in mentality is almost instantaneous, as we transition to the daily rhythm of field work. On the northern banks of the Victoria Nile, the landscape is verdant. Having just experienced several months of wet season, the plants have responded with remarkable vigor; green leafy trees and tall swards of grass have certainly taken advantage of the abundance of water. Areas that were easily drivable during the dry season surveys have since become impassably quagmired and the termite mounds that were so perceptible a few months prior are once again masked by the tall grasses that erupt from the parched earth following the rains.
In the simplest terms, the science of population ecology concerns itself with how and why a group of animals (or plants, bacteria, etc) changes in number over time. These changes occur -in their most distilled forms- through four relatively simple processes: births, deaths, immigration and emigration. For large-bodied and long-lived animals like giraffe, these processes are very often difficult to directly monitor and are generally inferred. The gestation period of a giraffe is over 14 months and the odds of being present at the precise moment of birth are exceedingly small. Every so often, however, researchers get lucky and witness these miraculous occasions. Such was the case on our latest demographic survey of the endangered Rothschild's giraffe in Murchison Falls National Park. During these surveys, we drive the entire extent of the park and photograph every giraffe that we encounter so that we can identify them by their unique spot patterns in attempt to understand and conserve this population. On this particular day, we were deep in the central region of Murchison Falls National Park, photographing a group of giraffe that frequents the open glades and surrounding dense woodland, when we noticed the large female struggling to give birth to its 150 pound calf. The process from the initial five-foot drop into the world, to the young giraffe's first steps occurred over the span of under an hour. It's an incredible progression from birth to mobility meant to give the calf the greatest chance of surviving this vulnerable stage. This young giraffe has a challenging time ahead of it - mortality is typically highest for giraffes in their first year- but if he survives, we will be able to monitor him as he potentially grows another fourteen feet in height.
A cool breeze catches the nylon fabric stretched over the 9 foot frame and lifts the kite skyward. This particular kite strains under the additional extra ounces of a FujiFilm FinePix XP80 camera mounted to a picavet rig attached to the kite string. The specialized payload contains a programmed intervalometer which will trigger the shutter every 15 seconds. As the kite is guided around the landscape, it -in theory - will capture images which can then be digitally stitched together to create high resolution aerial imagery of the distribution of various plants over the heterogeneous landscape. Coupled with direct observations of feeding giraffes on the same landscape, this birds-eye view can be used to inform our understanding of how giraffes make foraging decisions in heterogeneous browsing landscapes.