How former foes worked together to help save these rare giraffes

To move giraffes in Kenya from a flooding island to a safe new home, onetime enemies cooperated—and built a modern-day ark.

Photographs By Ami Vitale
Published 26 Apr 2021, 10:28 BST
explore-05.21-barge-giraffe
A team of rescuers made up of people from the Ruko Conservancy, the Kenya Wildlife Service, Save Giraffes Now, and the Northern Rangelands Trust ferry Asiwa to a newly built sanctuary on the mainland, using a homemade barge constructed from metal drums, steel beams, and tarps.
Photograph by AMI VITALE

There was a time, not long ago, when peace between the Pokot and the Ilchamus seemed impossible. Living along the shores of Kenya’s Lake Baringo, the two communities had spent decades waging war over cattle, land, and water—turning one of Kenya’s most biodiverse regions into a barren battlefield.

Lake Baringo
Photograph by NGM Maps

In 2006 Pokot and Ilchamus elders reached a truce in their bitter conflict. They agreed that to build unity and trust, the former enemies would work together to bring back the wildlife that their conflict helped drive out—starting with the Rothschild’s giraffe.

These giraffes’ numbers are dwindling. Only around 2,000 remain in the wild, and 800 of those live in Kenya. The Rothschild’s giraffe, also known as the Baringo giraffe, was once abundant around Lake Baringo, but the iconic breed went extinct in the area after decades of conflict and poaching. (Masai giraffe subspecies declared endangered)

Rothschild’s giraffes await rescue on an island inside Kenya’s Lake Baringo. Rising water levels made it impossible for them to remain on the land that was their home.
Photograph by AMI VITALE

Eager to see these giraffes return to their homeland, Pokot and Ilchamus community members got to work. Within a year they had established the Ruko Conservancy, a 44,000-acre community conservancy where both the Pokot and Ilchamus work. “It wasn’t easy,” says Rebby Sebei, a Pokot community member who manages the conservancy. “But both sides were keen for change.”

In 2011 the conservancy received its first group of Rothschild’s giraffes: eight animals relocated from other areas in hopes that they’d multiply and repopulate the area. The giraffes were placed on a peninsula in Lake Baringo, where they could be easily protected from poachers.

The species’ return to Lake Baringo attracted tourists, giving the local economy a much needed boost. The relocated animals, and their offspring born on the peninsula, became “a symbol of peace, unity, and a source of community wealth,” Sebei says.

Despite disastrous flooding and a global pandemic, people from the Ruko Conservancy, Kenya Wildlife Service, Save Giraffes Now, and Northern Rangelands Trust came together to rescue the giraffes. On this run, the barge carried a female named Pasaka off the island.
Photograph by AMI VITALE

After years of harmony, disaster struck. Heavy rains fell, flooding many parts of Kenya’s Rift Valley, including Lake Baringo. By 2020 the lake’s rising waters had displaced more than 5,000 people and destroyed schools, hospitals, and homes.

The flooding turned the giraffes’ 100-acre peninsula into a rapidly shrinking island. They were trapped without enough food, even when rangers brought some from the mainland. Several animals, adults and calves, died as the waters crept higher.

Already contending with a global pandemic and a natural disaster, the Pokot and Ilchamus communities set out to rescue the eight giraffes that remained. After weighing all options, the best idea—though still difficult and dangerous—seemed to be to load each giraffe onto a barge that a boat would tow to the mainland.

The second giraffe to be rescued from the flooding island, a female named Pasaka, regains consciousness after being sedated. Tranquilizing a giraffe comes with many risks, but Pasaka’s rescuers say it was necessary in order to get her onto the barge for transport.
Photograph by AMI VITALE

Getting a wild animal that stands upwards of 18 feet tall, and can weigh nearly as much as a compact car, onto a barge safely is no easy task. “From the onset, I knew the work would be both challenging and delicate,” said Stephen Chege, a senior wildlife veterinarian working with the Northern Rangelands Trust, one of several groups that joined the effort. Giraffes don’t handle tranquilisers well—sedated giraffes have been known to choke on their own saliva—and their unique physiology makes them prone to neck and leg injuries. Chege and the other rescuers had their work cut out for them.

Using metal drums, steel beams, and tarps, Pokot and Ilchamus community members built a barge that was sturdy enough to transport the giraffes across the lake. They also set up a 4,400-acre, predator-proof sanctuary on the mainland, where the giraffes could acclimate to their new surroundings.

The first giraffe slated for rescue was a female named Asiwa. She had spent most of 2020 alone after rising water bisected the island, isolating her from the rest of her herd. Rescuers hoped they could lure her onto the barge using mangoes and other tasty treats—but when they tried, Asiwa appeared uninterested. “She was quite skittish,” says David O’Connor, president of the nonprofit group Save Giraffes Now. “She didn’t know we were trying to help her.”

The rescuers decided to tranquilize Asiwa and outfit her with a blindfold and harness, which would allow them to guide her onto the barge. The plan was risky: If Asiwa fell into the water, she would almost certainly drown. When the tranquiliser dart hit, Asiwa took off running in the opposite direction of the barge—but keeled over “about a foot from the water,” says O’Connor. “We were incredibly lucky.” Once Asiwa was down, the rescuers rushed in, injecting a tranquiliser-reversal drug, stuffing socks into her ears, blindfolding her, and equipping her with a makeshift harness. When Asiwa rose to her feet, you could hear a pin drop. “Everyone was really nervous,” O’Connor says.

Through the island’s harsh terrain, the rescuers guided Asiwa across the island and onto the barge. It was slow going at first, but once she hit her stride, “it looked like someone walking a dog on a Sunday afternoon in the park,” O’Connor says. When they reached the barge, Asiwa walked right on, and relieved rescuers shut the gate behind her.

O’Connor described her as “totally calm” during her hour-long voyage to the mainland, where a crowd of Pokot and Ilchamus people waited. When the barge reached the shore, the rescuers removed the earplugs, harness, and blindfold, and let Asiwa loose. As she stepped off the barge and onto the sanctuary ground, the crowd burst into applause. “It was a dream that came true,” says Sebei. “Happiness engulfed everyone.” (See majestic photos of the world’s tallest mammal.)

Around Christmas, a giraffe calf was born on the island and was named Noelle. After Asiwa, two more giraffes were rescued: Pasaka, a female, had to be sedated—but Lbarnoti, a male, was lured onto the barge with food. In the next few months the rescuers expected to move the last of the giraffes off the island, to their new home on the mainland.

The task is daunting—but “where there is peace,” Sebei says, “everything is possible.”

Annie Roth, a California-based science journalist, enjoys writing about endangered species and the people who study them.

How you can help

Save Giraffes Now supports immediate, on-the-ground conservation in Africa, from rescues to relocations. Donate here: savegiraffesnow.org/donate.

Tell a friend. Many people don’t know giraffes are in trouble—but their numbers dropped by roughly 40 percent in just 30 years (1985-2015).

This story appears in the May 2021 issue of National Geographic magazine.

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