Giraffes are magical! You simply can’t deny it! I simply cannot imagine a world without giraffes! What if the only place you could ever see a giraffe was in a zoo? I remember coming to the zoo as a kid and seeing these gigantic, dinosaur-like animals gracefully moving through their exhibit. I was fortunate enough to have a family friend that was a giraffe keeper so I was able to feed them and get close to them too. I still remember how I felt when their giant heads would come down 15 feet, a long strand of drool coming from their big soft lips and floating away in the breeze, their purplish-grey tongue coming out to take the treats from my small hands. From the time Amy Phelps was a small child, giraffes set the path for her life. She has always wanted to work with giraffes and has always been drawn to them and now having the great privilege of being the Lead Giraffe Keeper at the Oakland Zoo she has devoted the past 14 years of her life to this majestic species.
Now imagine if you spent your hard earned savings to take a dream safari to Africa and when you got there you found out that giraffes were so scarce that you may not even see one. Tragically this reality is not that far away. Just 15 years ago, the total number of giraffes in Africa was estimated by IUCN at greater than 140,000 individuals. In 2013, best estimates by the Giraffe Conservation Foundation, a leading authority in giraffe conservation, have the Africa-wide population at less than 80,000 individuals – that is a loss of almost 60% – more than half of the giraffe in Africa are gone.
At Oakland Zoo, we focus a great deal on biodiversity conservation and our efforts are only increasing. Today’s zoos and aquariums are doing a lot to combat the terrifying level of biodiversity loss ongoing worldwide by providing knowledge, skills, and resources to projects in the field to enhance our understanding of conservation issues. But we still have to ask ourselves: if we, as human beings, can’t conserve one of the most iconical large land mammals, what future hope do salamanders and insects have in our world today? With all of this effort, surprisingly much is still unknown about giraffes, which has led to many misconceptions that may be impeding conservations efforts. More baseline knowledge is required to better understand how limiting factors – such as hunting and other human-based pressures, amount of protected viable habitat, and even basic giraffe biology – is needed for us to better understand giraffes and how they interact with and are affected by their environment.
Oakland Zoo has also long been a supporter of giraffe welfare and conservation, and we continue to make strides in managing this charismatic species. Two of our Lead Keepers have assisted with research projects on giraffe in Africa; and as the Zoo’s Lead Keeper for giraffes and antelope, I sit on the Steering Committee for the Association of Zoo and Aquarium’s Antelope and Giraffe and Ungulate Taxon Advisory Group, helped lead the development of the International Association of Giraffe Care Professionals, and am a Research Associate for the Giraffe Conservation Foundation. Our veterinary and giraffe management staff consult caregivers and scientists world-wide on our pioneering giraffe management program on topics such as managing positive-reinforcement based animal training for orthopedic and veterinary care, enrichment, nutrition, and geriatric and neonatal care. Even with all this, the truth is we can always do more.
We are in the beginning stages of training new Behavioral Observation Team volunteers on how to collect scientific behavioral data for a long-term study on our giraffes and eland, which will offer insight into how our giraffes interact socially and engage with their environment. The study has many similarities to data being collected by giraffe researchers in Africa for easy comparison, and to assist in the sharing of the data.
This year, our Quarters for Conservation program is raising funds for the Reticulated Giraffe Project. Reticulated giraffes seem to have taken some heavy hits due to poaching and habitat loss, with the population decreasing more than 80% from 30,000 10 years ago to 5,000 today. Reticulated giraffes occur only in the arid rangelands of north-east Africa and are well-sought after by tourists on safari, but surprisingly little else is known about their biology, ecology or behavior. The Reticulated Giraffe Project, a partnership between Queen’s University Belfast and the Kenya Wildlife Service, aims to address this lack of information by investigating aspects of the giraffe’s behavioral ecology and of the population processes operating upon them. Oakland Zoo is raising funds to support The Reticulated Giraffe Project through various means, and this year you can help by voting for this Project at the Quarters for Conservation Voting Station at the Zoo’s Main Entrance.
We are also hosting special activities for the first World Giraffe Day, Friday June 27, 2014. The festivities will begin with a Browse Parade where kids waving the giraffe’s favorite types of tree branches will start their browse march at our Quarters for Conservation kiosk in Karibu Village at the zoo’s main entrance and end at the African Veldt, where keepers will then offer the delicious branches to our giraffe. Zoo guests will also have the very unique opportunity to meet our giraffes during 5 feedings throughout the day! All proceeds from the Oakland Zoo’s World Giraffe Day celebration will go to the Giraffe Conservation Foundation to support their efforts throughout Africa. Last but certainly not least, we will be kicking off the new collaborative fundraising campaign called Jeans for Giraffes –bring ion your old and worn denim and recycle in our special reticulated bins around the zoo! The money we gain from recycling the old jeans will go straight to giraffes in Africa!
To learn more about what Oakland Zoo is doing for giraffes and how you can do more, visit our Giraffe Conservation Page on the Oakland Zoo website, and come see us for our World Giraffe Day celebration tomorrow, this Friday, June 27th! We hope to see you there!