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).
Population Trends of Nubian/Rothschild’s Giraffe Populations in Kidepo Valley National Park
The historic distribution of Rothschild’s giraffe ranged from the Rift Valley of central-west Kenya across Uganda to the Nile River and northwards into (South) Sudan (Dagg & Foster 1976). In the early 1960s, Dagg (1962) estimated Rothschild’s giraffe in Uganda at 1,130 individuals. In contrast, Rwetsiba (2005) reported that Rothschild’s giraffe in Uganda numbered approximately 2,500 in the 1960s. By the early 1980s, the population had decreased to an estimated 350 giraffe (Rwetsiba 2005).
It is important to note, although Dagg (1962) referred to G. c. cotonni and G. c. rothschildi, G. c. cotonni has been subsumed into G. c. rothschildi (Dagg 1971) and referred to as such. By the mid to late 1990s, East (1999) estimated the total number of Rothschild’s giraffe in Uganda at 145 individuals, most of which occurred in Murchison Falls National Park. In contrast to this figure, Rwetsiba (2005) estimated Uganda’s giraffe population to number 250 individuals during the same timeframe. Currently, giraffe are only found in three national parks: Murchison Falls National Park contains the largest population, Lake Mburo National Park recently received 15 giraffe in a translocation effort, and Kidepo Valley National Park hosts to an imperiled population.
Kidepo Valley National Park formerly supported one of the country's largest protected Rothschild’s giraffe populations (East 1999), with an estimated 400 giraffe in the late 1960s/early 1970s (NEMA 2009; Rwetsiba 2006; Nampindo et al. 2005). The population decreased to an estimated 160 giraffe in 1982 (NEMA 2009; Rwetsiba & Wanyama 2005) and by 1995, a mere five individuals were estimated to remain (East 1999). Three Rothschild’s giraffe (one male and two females) were successfully translocated from Kenya’s Lake Nakuru National Park to Kidepo Valley National Park in 1997 in an attempt to promote the recovery of the Park’s giraffe population (Uganda Wildlife Foundation 2014; Rwetsiba & Wanyama 2005; East 1999; Lamprey & Michelmore 1996).
In 2002, nine Rothschild's giraffe were estimated to remain in the Kidepo Valley Conservation Area (Rwetsiba & Wanyama 2005). In 2005, the first aerial total count of wildlife in the KVCA counted 14 Rothschild’s giraffe, all of which occurred in the southern parts of Kidepo Valley National Park (Rwetsiba & Wanyama 2005). Muller (2011) [N1] estimated Kidepo Valley National Park’s Rothschild’s giraffe population to number less than 20 individuals. An aerial survey of Kidepo Valley National Park in 2014 identified 20 giraffe within the Park (Wanyama et al., 2014. In 2015 and 2016, GCF vehicle based photographic surveys documented 28 unique individuals and estimated 30 giraffe in the population.
Current Research Efforts in Kidepo Valley National Par
Uganda’s ‘Endangered’ Nubian (Rothschild’s) giraffe, Giraffa camelopardalis camelopardalis (formerly G. c. rothschildi), is one of the nine extant giraffe subspecies (Dagg, 1971). With an estimated population of less than 1,500 individuals remaining in the wild and an estimated 1,250, 30 and 15 in their native range in Uganda (Murchison Falls National Park, Kidepo Valley National Park and Lake Mburo National Park, respectively), it is also among the most threatened (Marais et al. 2013; 2017). Conservation research on the Rothschild’s/Nubian giraffe has been identified as a conservation priority by GCF and the IUCN SSC Giraffe & Okapi Specialist Group, and GCF in partnership with Uganda Wildlife Authority, Uganda Wildlife Education Centre and Dartmouth College have been working in Uganda since 2013.
This project seeks to build on the first two comprehensive assessments of Nubian giraffe numbers in Kidepo Valley National Park undertaken by GCF in 2015 and 2016. The Kidepo Valley National Park giraffe population likely faces the hallmark threats of a small, recovering population potentially including inbreeding depression from a genetic bottleneck and top down population regulation. Given the estimated small size of the population, it is susceptible to demographic and environmental stochasticity, requiring a close monitoring of population dynamics to quickly identify and mitigate potential and emerging threats. This survey provides an invaluable update on the initial baseline collected to address current gaps in knowledge for the IUCN Red List Assessment of the currently listed Endangered Nubian giraffe, as well as for the development of the first-ever National Giraffe Conservation Strategy in Uganda.
Project Objectives For March/April 2017:
The primary data collection method for population monitoring consisted of vehicle based fixed route photographic surveys and photographic documenting of incidental encounters, seeking to obtain a total count of giraffe over the survey period. Since each individual giraffe has a unique pelage pattern, photographs of observed giraffe were compared with previously photographed giraffe to ensure that repeated sightings of an animal did not result in increased population estimates. Surveys were conducted between March 27-April 3, 2017, from approximately 8:00am to 4:00pm. Using survey routes and protocols established in 2015, the southern section of the Park was identified in the Kidepo Valley National Park as the preferred habitat for giraffe. Surveys were driven by one of three vehicles during each survey period: (1) North - north of Apoka, (2) South - south of Apoka, and East- east of Apoka. The north section of the Park, extending into the Kidepo Valley, was also surveyed to better assess potential habitats where giraffe may seasonally move. Each survey vehicle had a driver, a researcher familiar with the area, survey equipment, an UWA ranger, and additional spotters. The UWA rangers proved invaluable in guiding the survey teams to great vantage points within the Park along the various routes. Their knowledge of the Park allowed us to track the giraffe so that we could get close enough to photograph them.
When encountered, as a minimum the right side of each giraffe was photographed, and the location, age class (Calf: 0-1 year; Subadult: 1-5 years; Adult: 5+ years), sex, group composition, injuries and any visible signs of disease were noted. Using pattern recognition software (HotSpotter), a database of unique individual giraffe in the Park was updated from to include observations from 2015 and 2016 surveys. As part of long-term monitoring, the capture history records of individual giraffe were generated from repeated photographic surveys which will enable the monitoring of both individual space-use and population distribution over time. All individual giraffe encounter and matches were visually confirmed by researchers to ensure positive identifications
To potentially assess genetic diversity and pedigrees of this small population, we collected tissue samples from selected giraffe. Tissue biopsies provide the greatest quantity of high quality nuclear DNA of any biological samples that can be secured readily from free-ranging individuals. Samples for genetic (DNA) analysis were collected from the remnant Kidepo Valley National Park giraffe population using a remote biopsy dart delivery system. Skin biopsies were collected from the giraffe in the population using a Dan-Inject rifle and long cutter biopsy dart (Fig 3).
Using pelage patterns of the targeted giraffe, we associated all samples with a unique identification and ensured no sample duplication. Once collected, all DNA tissue were stored in 80% ethanol and labelled. All permits for the export of the samples to the lab partner in Germany will be finalised in collaboration with UWA.
During the survey period (6 days) in total, we documented 93 giraffe observations and 18 group observations. The mean size of each group of giraffe was 5.17 individuals (stdev = 3.29). From these observations, we identified 34 unique individual giraffe in Kidepo, including 6 new calves. All giraffe previously identified during the 2015 and 2016 surveys were observed during the 2017, including calves. None of the giraffe seen showed any sign of snare wounds or giraffe skin disease.
The South (108 km) and North Route (119 km) were traversed a minimum of three times, and together with opportunistic observation undertaken during collaring and DNA sampling activities, greater than 1,000 km were driven during the survey timeframe. No giraffe were observed outside of the Narus Valley
All of the data collected during these surveys will be added to the Uganda giraffe Country Profile to help inform future conservation measures and the proposed development of a National Giraffe Conservation Strategy. Depending on the timing, the obtained information will also be incorporated into the IUCN Red List assessment of the Rothschild’s giraffe by the IUCN SSC Giraffe & Okapi Specialist Group, supported by GCF, which is currently under review.
DNA Data Sampling
In total 6 giraffe in Kidepo had tissue samples taken for DNA analysis during this 6 day period. In addition to the giraffe sampled during the 2016 field season, we have collected tissues from 20 individuals (58% of the total documented population). The identity of all individuals from which DNA biopsy tissue samples were collected were noted and in future visits it is envisaged to complete the sampling for all individuals in the population to have a full record of their population dynamics.
Following the submission of relevant agreements and paper work to the relevant Uganda Authorities, it is proposed that the samples be sent to a dedicated genetics laboratory in Germany – Bik-F, Senckenberg Museum, Frankfurt, for developing of dedicated microsatellite analyses to assess pedigrees and genetic diversity.
To better understand the spatial ecology of giraffe in system and to inform Park-specific management strategies for the conservation of this flagship species, we deployed two newly developed GPS tracking units on giraffe. GCF and partners undertook the first preliminary study of giraffe movements in Kidepo Valley National Park during the April 2016 field survey. Although this 2016 study yielded new understandings of giraffe movements in the Park, further efforts were required to better understand giraffe space use in this system. As such, we sought to expand on this growing body of knowledge by outfitting two giraffe with newly designed ossicone mounted GPS tracking units.
These solar charged tracking units were designed by the Kenyan based company, Savannah Tracking, and were programmed to record coordinate fixes at 30 minute intervals. Data were uploaded to a server via satellite uplink to allow for realtime monitoring of tracked individuals.
On the afternoon of Saturday 1st April 2017, an adult female giraffe was collared by UWA with support of GCF and team. The team consisted of two veterinarians, one technician, wardens, rangers and drivers from UWA, supported by individuals from GCF, Dartmouth College, Chester Zoo, St. Louis Zoo, Nashville Zoo, Taronga Zoo and Independent wildlife photographers.
The female giraffe was darted using a cocktail of drugs (7 and 8mg Etorphine / 40 mg Azaperone). The giraffe was down during the fitting of the collars for approximately 15 minutes during which we collected morphometric data as well as tissue and blood samples. An attempt to collar a large adult bull was also made, but was unsuccessful, so on the morning of Sunday 2nd April 2017 a smaller bull giraffe was successfully collared using similar protocols.
The giraffe were monitored briefly as they rejoined their herds to ensure both individuals were behaving normally and any health concerns were allayed. The UWA monitoring team in Kidepo Valley National Park will continue monitoring of the giraffe as part of their field programme.
Preliminary data from the GPS satellite collar has been mapped and presented below. The data indicate the giraffe had very different moving, where the female had not travelled far from initial collaring site but the male had travelled a fair distance and towards the border of Kidepo Valley National Park along both ends of the Narus Valley (Fig 6). Both tracking units have subsequently been removed from the giraffe.
Kidepo Valley National Park is home to the second largest natural wild Rothschild’s giraffe population in the world, and as such, conservation strategies for this unique subspecies hinge on a detailed understanding of their population dynamics and ecology. Our broader and ongoing evaluation of their numbers and current threats to the population in Uganda in collaboration with UWA and UWEC and supported by Dartmouth College, USA, has to date provided valuable outputs – including translocation of 18 giraffe to the south side of Murchison Falls in January 2016. The findings from this project provide are a critical baseline to help with future conservation efforts for Rothschild’s giraffe in the Park and country at large.
Importantly, conservation translocation has been identified as a key tool to further secure Rothschild’s/Nubian giraffe numbers and range in Uganda. This potential strategy will be of direct relevance for the development of a national giraffe conservation strategy in the future. A detailed understanding of the population structure in Murchison Falls National Park as a potential source population to supplement genetic diversity within the small Kidepo Valley National Park is an essential component of safely removing individuals and using them to propagate viable populations in other areas of Uganda. Additionally, the current studies in Murchison Falls National Park and knowledge of group structure, preferred associations and social dynamics, coupled with detailed understanding of giraffe skin disease issues, may be able to provide a social consideration for selecting individuals for translocations in the future. All of this work has been initiated through this project and in future findings will help us to make informed recommendations and decisions.
With the ongoing monitoring of the Kidepo Valley National Park giraffe population, a better understanding of giraffe by all stakeholders can help to further develop their long-term conservation and management. Our continued work will provide a valuable baseline for the planned development of a national strategy in Uganda (none currently exists) from which future targeted efforts can be highlighted and planned appropriately in the broader interest of giraffe conservation, and particularly of the endangered Rothschild’s/Nubian giraffe.
The project is part of a larger collaboration underpinned by a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the GCF, UWA and UWEC. Additionally, technical support from Dartmouth College was invaluable and all fieldwork for March/April 2017 was undertaken collaboratively with partners from GCF, UWA, Dartmouth College, Chester Zoo, Nashville Zoo, St.Louis Zoo, and Taronga [N1] Zoo.[N2]
We would like to give a special thanks to Chester Zoo for their valuable financial support of the project and to the following for ongoing support to GCF in East Africa: Auckland Zoo, Blank Park Zoo, Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, Leiden Conservation Foundation, UWA and UWEC.
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Dagg, A.I. & Foster, J.B. 1976. The Giraffe: Its Biology, Behavior and Ecology. Robert E. Krieger Publishing Company, Inc., Malabar, FL.
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GCF 2015. Africa’s giraffe – a conservation guide. http://www.giraffeconservation.org/booklets.php Accessed 20 October 2015.
Harrington, G.N. & Ross, I.C. 1974. The savanna ecology of Kidepo Valley National Park. East African Wildlife Journal, 12: 93-105.
Lamprey, R.H. & Michelmore F. 1996. Surveys of Protected Areas, Phase I and Phase II. Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities, Kampala, Uganda.
Marais, A.J., Fennessy, S. & Fennessy, J. 2013. Country Profile: A rapid assessment of the giraffe conservation status in the Republic of Uganda. Giraffe Conservation Foundation, Windhoek, Namibia.