Tracking the Mara giraffes using innovative tail tags

Kenya Wildlife Service Rangers during the tagging of a giraffe within the Masai Mara ecosystem


What you need to know:

  • On this particular day, a potential target is spotted, but it has a baby.
  • Another one is too big and would require more drugs to bring it down. Its large size could also pose a danger to the team at the point of release.

Endless savannah plains, the life-giving waters of Mara River and abundant wildlife make up the intriguing Mara ecosystem, a 2,500 square kilometre-protected area in the south of Kenya. It consists of the Masai Mara National Reserve and privately owned conservancies, where people and wildlife have traditionally co-existed. One keystone species that stands out here is the Maasai giraffe.

But what's less obvious about these towering twigas is where and how they roam this vast ecosystem, an important wildlife corridor. Gathering this information requires capturing a giraffe. It is a tall order, a mission the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) sets out to accomplish.

The Giraffe Conservation Foundation is a key partner in this exercise. They're providing the technology that will gather the necessary information. Arthur Muneza, the East Africa coordinator, says it's a tag attached to a giraffe.  "We have tagged giraffes in the reserve and Mara North, Lemek and various others in the Mara ecosystem.

These conservancies are somewhat connected, but we don't know to what level and whether the human activities happening, like fencing and livestock presence, impact wildlife. That's why we are using GPS satellite tags to essentially look at giraffes to see how they are using this landscape," Aurthur says.

He adds that the biggest threat is human activities, especially infrastructure. "Fences severely threaten giraffes' survival. For some reason, they can't see the wires, and they often get trapped in fences. Indeed, we have seen poachers pushing giraffes towards fences."

Tagging a giraffe requires darting, capturing and fitting it with a tag. But first, the process requires finding the right candidate, which is a sub-adult male or female around three-four years old. From this age, they move away from their mothers and are highly mobile, so they can be better monitored.

On this particular day, a potential target is spotted, but it has a baby. Another one is too big and would require more drugs to bring it down. Its large size could also pose a danger to the team at the point of release. A couple is seen, but they sense the team's presence and make a run for it. Finally, there is one that fits the bill. The KWS vet, Dr Mukami Ruori, decides to take her aim and fires.

The team ropes the giraffe around its legs and brings it down. They then rush in to adjust its neck position, which needs to be upright to avoid regurgitation, choking and possible death. Giraffes are delicate due to their size and long necks.

The antidote, or reversal drug, is given immediately the giraffe has been roped down as keeping it sedated for too long can be life-threatening. It's a race against time to get everything done, including attaching the satellite tag on the giraffe's tail.

The GPS gadget, made in Kenya, costs Sh300, 000, including satellite upload and download time. It's expected to stay on for two-three years, during which time it will capture information and help answer research questions.

Once attached, the giraffe is released and it runs back into the savannah. The entire exercise takes about 15 minutes. A total of 21 giraffes are fitted with the GPS trackers.

Six months after the exercise, we follow up on the satellite data transmitted to the EarthRanger integrated web-based system, which is made to assist ecological matters. Victor Matsanza, Earth Ranger coordinator, explains that the signal from the tag is sent via satellite and it provides the time, date and direction the tagged giraffe is moving towards.

The giraffes’ behaviour is revealed through the data. The technology shows the direction of the animals’ movement and areas of concentration. Victor says the data allows for conservation decisions to be made. "Are they moving towards the community areas where we have farms or not? If they are, we have patrol teams on the ground guiding them based on this data. We tell teams that we have movement of giraffes towards this area, ‘so be on the lookout’, and we prevent poaching."

Victor adds that the technology comes with its challenges: "Sometimes when the area is more cloudy, you won't get real-time readings as expected. If an animal goes to an intense area like a thicket or a lot of vegetation, the satellites cannot recognise those tags. You end up getting a delayed signal, or sometimes it can fail.

In this case, five tags failed and depowered. Tags can also fall off the giraffes. Despite this, technology is key in conservation efforts, according to Victor.

"Technology is changing and conservation can't be left behind. We have to invest fully in it so we get more real-time value. If we don't act, then chances are we will end up losing the giraffes. You can only safeguard what you monitor; whatever you can't monitor, it's hard to safeguard," Victor says.

There are three species of giraffes in Kenya, the Maasai, Nubian and reticulated. Giraffes are critical as they help balance the ecosystem by eating tall shrubs and opening up forage for shorter animals. There are about 35,000 giraffes in Kenya. Safeguarding their populations is crucial as they continue to face growing threats such as poaching, habitat loss, diseases and climate change.

Watch NTV Wild Talk's "Tracking Twigas" episode tonight on NTV Kenya or on at 8.25pm