Our team, compiled to translocate 22 Rothschild’s giraffes, is now a well-oiled machine adjusted to the sights and sounds of Murchison Falls National Park (MFNP) in northwestern Uganda. Translocation is necessary to ensure the continued persistence of Rothschild’s giraffes into the future. It has been 4 days since we arrived in the park and we wasted no time getting down to the task at hand. While the main objective of this operation is to relocate giraffes, Giraffe Conservation Foundation (GCF) and the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) see this as an opportunity to simultaneously train students and rangers in large mammal capture and handling protocols so as to build capacity in the area. Today, just like the last three mornings, we assembled at dawn for a team meeting. In these meetings, everyone is told, and in that way understands, exactly what is expected of them on any given day. After we receive our orders, we assemble into action units. These units involve specific jobs all relating to the giraffe captures. These jobs include darting, roping, monitoring of giraffe at the capture site, monitoring of giraffe at the boma (enclosure), measuring physical characteristics of each individual animal, and carting (transporting) the giraffes. I am part of the unit that is tasked with measuring the physical characteristics and recording data on the captured giraffe. Earlier this week Dr. Peter Morckel, with himself acting as the captured giraffe, led an intensive training session which mimicked the moment shortly after a giraffe is darted and requires restraint. Playing the role of the giraffe Dr. Morckel was fast to emphasize that giraffes are far stronger than he is, underscoring the importance of learning good solid techniques and working cohesively as a unit. The training lasted between 3 and 4 hours in which everyone gained familiarity with their roles and with how best to work efficiently in a small group capacity.
When it comes to the practice of capturing real giraffes in the wild landscape of MFNP, what we accomplished over the course of several hours would need to be handled in minutes. The moment a giraffe is darted, the roping team needs to slow down the animal and temporarily restrain it on the ground.
With the giraffe on the ground, the monitoring unit and measuring unit (my individual unit) step in, blindfold the animal (to decrease the individual’s stress) and collect data on the animal’s vital rates. These include heart rate, respiratory rate, and temperature. We also collect blood samples, ossicone (the horns on top of giraffes’ heads) length, head length, neck length, and body length, among others. At the same time, a reversal drug is administered into the giraffe to counteract the effects of the dart. Therefore, when the measuring and monitoring units complete their work, the animal is almost fully aware. As part of the monitoring unit, I risk injury from the giraffe while collecting these important pieces of information. Dr. Morckel and Dr. Julian Fennessy of GCF are quick to point out that the safest place to be is near the shoulder of the giraffe where we can avoid the animal's powerful leg kicks.
For this translocation process some animals are fitted with GPS collars, donated by GCF, so that we can monitor their movement and habitat selection once they have been relocated to the southern part of the park. Once the GPS collar has been fitted on the head of the animal, the giraffe is carefully guided into the cart. Once in the cart, the giraffe is transported to the boma for temporary confinement before release. We use this time period to continue to monitor the giraffes to ensure that each animal is in good health and condition. As of today, we have successfully captured 8 giraffes all of which are doing great in the boma. The days are long and the work is usually fast, but well worth it!
Another benefit of the training session was the opportunity to establish new friendships. And who would have thought that I would meet a fellow Spartan in the remote reaches of Uganda. Today I met Dr. Celsus, a veterinary doctor at Makerere University. Dr. Celsus recently finished a 4-month stint working at Michigan State University (MSU) honing his skills in large animal care and geographic information systems research. It was a great feeling to see someone else in MSU Green and White dedicating their time to the practice of securing the future of giraffes: this iconic species of Africa. Speaking of which, Tutilo Mudumba, a fellow member of the RECaP Laboratory at MSU, stopped by to say hello on his journey to find a group of young men who were once poachers but now make a living by making and selling crafts created from illegal wire snares. You can read more about Tutilo’s work here in these Notes from the Field. Tutilo is a great friend of so many people here in MFNP and was warmly welcomed by all, but perhaps none more warmly than the rangers. The rangers are particularly appreciative of the work that Tutilo has done in this region focusing on lion conservation and anti-snaring initiatives. Snaring is a big problem in this landscape threatening the conservation of all large mammals. And yet is Spartans that are searching for answers to the problems that plague conservation biology. Go Green!