The world would be a smaller place without its megaherbivores. John Doherty introduces one of the most threatened - the reticulated giraffe.
I know there is a good chance that the lions will not succeed but, even so, my heart is in my mouth. Trident is special – he was the first giraffe I learned to recognise – and now three big cats threaten both him and my scientific objectivity.
It is early morning and the light is soft but clear. From his great height, the old bull soon spots his would-be assassins, their own pinprick pupils returning his stare. For long minutes he watches, motionless, as the trio of predators moves carefully closer. Overhead, hundreds of bright-blue rollers stream towards a gap in the mountains, flying north to the Mediterranean.
Trident is with two younger bulls: Marten and Crocodile’s Eye. His towering frame bears the marks of narrow escapes in the past – the skin of his hindquarters is raked with long, parallel scars and he has lost the fly-whisk tassel at the tip of his tail.
Sheer size gives giraffes immunity to most predators (as well as to competition from other browsing animals) but, by working together, a team of lions can bring down even the largest adult males.
Suddenly, the suspense is broken: three giraffes and three lions are running, hard, and the air behind them is thick with dust thrown up by their hooves and paws. Fascinated but fearful, I follow as quickly as I can.
Walking tall no more
Dramatic encounters such as this may soon be a thing of the past because the giraffes that live here in the drylands of northern Kenya are fast disappearing. They have coped with predation by lions for hundreds of thousands of years but are now in serious trouble.
In 1998, there were thought to be 28,000 giraffes in northern Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia, but this figure has plummeted by 80 per cent in only 10 years. My aim is to find out why – and to save these gentle giants from possible extinction.
The giraffes I study are called ‘reticulated’or ‘Somali’. They look quite different to Africa’s eight other giraffe subspecies due to their signature hide pattern: dark chestnut polygons divided by a complex tracery of narrow white lines.
Recent research suggests that they are so different from the others genetically that they deserve to be considered a separate species.
I’m based at the heart of the reticulated giraffes’ remaining range, in Samburu, Shaba and Buffalo Springs National Reserves, about 300km north of Nairobi. The landscapes here are magnificent – a mosaic of mountains and open savannahs, cut through by the great, life-giving Ewaso Ng’iro (‘brown river’).
It is a land of special animals not found in national parks to the south, including the so-called ‘Samburu Six’ – the beisa oryx, gerenuk, desert warthog, Grevy’s zebra, Somali ostrich and reticulated giraffe.
Today, I am joined by my friend Jacob Leaidura, a skilled naturalist with an encyclopedic knowledge of the area’s colourful birdlife. We are in Samburu, checking the strip of woodland that lines the banks of the Ewaso Ng’iro to see if any of our giraffes are here. And sure enough, before the lions shattered the calm of early morning, we had come across several familiar faces.
First to be located were Exclamation and Broken Blade, drinking in mid-river. Next we saw the aggressive Twin Shields slamming his bony head against the neck of another bull, Shamrock, who seemed reluctant to reciprocate but was nevertheless standing his ground.
And finally we watched a young female join a group with calves in the shade of a stand of doum (or gingerbread) palms. She was unknown to us but not, apparently, to Africa, an older female who greeted her with a brief but affectionate touching of muzzles.
The social behaviour of giraffes is something of a mystery. Casual observers tend to assume that they are highly social animals because they are so often found in what appear to be family groups. Yet these groups are extremely unstable – giraffes join and leave them apparently at random. Could it be that long-term bonds between individual giraffes are rare?
To tease out the truth, it’s necessary to be able to reliably identify hundreds of individuals in the field. I have spent countless hours staring at coat patterns, looking for unique and easily recognisable shapes among the maze-like networks of lines. And I name every known animal after the feature that most catches my eye.