The 2016 chapter of Operation Twiga is coming to a close and what an honor it has been for me to learn from professionals committed to securing the future of an endangered population of giraffes in Murchison Falls National Park (MFNP), Uganda. During the past two weeks, I have worked with veterinarians, rangers, and ecologists from across the world, who have given everything that they have for giraffe conservation. They have expended every ounce of energy in chasing down, roping, monitoring, loading, and translocating giraffes to a new and hopefully better home. Operation Twiga has had its ups and downs, which is part of the emotional roller coaster that seems to accompany every field season. For instance, the story of Melman and his successful translocation was a high point; a very fruitful experience for everyone involved in Operation Twiga. Not every capture was as successful. For instance, last week we captured an adult female giraffe. While we were collecting data on her, one of the vets noticed that she was lactating. This irrefutably identified that this female had recently given birth and was caring for a dependent calf. The vets advised to free her so that she could attend to her calf. Before release, we also noticed that the giraffe was suffering from a skin disease on her neck. We applied an antiseptic spray on the lesion in the hopes that the treatment would help her heal. Then we freed her so that she could be reconnected with her doting calf. We all know just how difficult it is to capture an adult giraffe and translocate the animal to another region. Every part of the journey is one that is associated with anxiety and stress. We care for these animals. We want their population to expand. We want them to be successful. Looking around into the eyes of my colleagues I saw no disappointment at the fact that we had to release this female. Instead, I saw satisfaction. We had not realized that the female had a calf when we captured her. But we would be sure that the female and her offspring were not separated for one minute longer than that had to be. Every member of Operation Twiga has shared one unifying mission: to devote their energies to helping these precious animals. And every animal counts. With just 1,250 Rothschild’s giraffes in MFNP, the conservation of one life matters tremendously.
So why is this population of giraffes having a difficult time expanding? There are a number of reasons, but snaring is a major contributor to the decline of giraffes and other wildlife in MFNP. Earlier in the day, we came across two animals that had been victims of snaring. The first one was a giraffe. We found only the remains of this animal, with a snare around its hind leg sealing its fate. The second animal was a male buffalo who had somehow managed to free itself from a snare around its head, as evidenced by a large scar on its neck. We were all left to wonder how the animal could have survived a snare around its neck. There are several human settlements around MFNP and poachers use snares mainly for bushmeat to capture animals such as kob, hartebeests, and oribis. However, snares are indiscriminate and lead to severe injuries in larger animals as evidenced by the case of Butcherman, the famous lion that Tutilo, my colleague at RECaP, has been tracking. In most cases, snares lead to the death of the trapped animals, but in so many of these cases, death is neither swift nor immediate. Snares are particularly problematic for elephants, because the trunk is almost invariably the part of the animal that is caught. Even if an elephant could survive a snare, to have a damaged trunk is a death sentence. The bottom of an elephant’s trunk is an extremely dexterous area (essentially the lips of the animal) where food items can be manipulated with great care and brought into the mouth. It is almost impossible to sustain oneself without an intact trunk. Not only is the trunk crucial for breathing, feeding and drinking, it also plays important roles in cleaning and cooling down the animal, and also in self-defense. Today, Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) received a tip that an elephant was caught in a snare and they used all of their efforts to locate the animal. Unfortunately, they did not find the elephant in time. When arriving on the scene we saw a horrific sight. A horribly-maimed and emaciated elephant takes one’s breath away. It is hard to process what you are seeing. How could a giant of the animal world be reduced to this by an indiscriminant snare? Uganda Wildlife Authority buried the elephant in an undisclosed location. It was truly a sad day for everyone involved in the search and even though not every animal can be saved, losing even one is very painful.
Encountering such animals cemented the importance, in my mind, of Operation Twiga. The giraffe population in the northern sector of MFNP is the largest wild-living population of Rothschild’s giraffe. The southern bank of MFNP, across the River Nile, is larger than the northern sector and in this region, where the giraffes are further away from sources of human disturbance, these animals have a great opportunity to be successful. In the area where we translocated the giraffes, the vegetation is dense with fewer predators. It is our hope that with a series of subsequent future translocations, the giraffe population in the south will steadily grow. Having giraffes in the southern bank of MFNP will also increase biodiversity in the area and boost the tourism industry. Most of the tourism activities are concentrated in the northern area of the park and more tourism ventures in the southern bank will increase revenue for UWA, benefiting both the people in the area and the giraffe population. Now, the next step is to monitor Melman and the other members of the new southern population. The monitoring will be carried out by UWA and we hope that the population will grow to ensure that the Rothschild’s giraffe will persist for generations to come.