19 Nov 2021
Tracking devices for giraffes win international award
AUTHOR: BRIGITTE WEIDLICH
The tallest land animal in the world is the giraffe and the home range of this majestic species is the African continent. One cannot imagine that the long-necked giraffes moving gracefully across the plains of northwestern Namibia, browsing leaves from tree tops or gazing at tourists in the Etosha National Park through the long eyelashes of their beautiful brown eyes might one day disappear due to habitat loss, increased human population and even poaching.
Yet, their numbers dwindled by some thirty percent in the last three decades and in Namibia the giraffe population has remained largely stagnant. Only some 100,000 giraffes are still roaming the African continent.
However, help is at hand. Apart from the Ministry of Environment, Forestry and Tourism’s successful efforts to translocate giraffe from healthy populations to other areas like communal conservancies, a private foundation is contributing secure the future of wild giraffe in Africa. An innovative satellite tracking system attached to nearly 300 giraffes in 12 African countries, including Namibia, provides important information for environmental experts, scientists and authorities about giraffe movements and interactions.
Even more interesting, these tracking devices are now small enough to be attached to one of the two horns on the giraffe’s head or to its tail. Well, giraffes actually do not have horns; the two stubs protruding from its head are actually 'ossicones' – cartilage that has ossified, meaning it has hardened into bone. Both female and male giraffe have ossicones. It does not hurt the animals if the small tracking devices are attached to them, or the tail.
Even more fascinating is that these trackers run on solar energy and thus their battery does not go flat like for instance satellite collars for elephants and lions.
Now, these special giraffe trackers are so high tech that they won an international award in early November!
Saving the African giraffe species
The Giraffe Conservation Foundation (GCF) was established in 2009 in the United Kingdom and is the only NGO that is solely dedicated to giraffes. In 2016, GCF closed its offices in the UK and opened its headquarters in Namibia. There are four different giraffe species spread over 18 African countries. In order to better understand the problems of giraffe, the GCF decided to fit satellite trackers to individual animals. They are called twiga trackers (twiga means giraffe in an African language) and their evolvement related to the necessary software has not gone unnoticed.
EarthRanger is a software solution that supports protected area managers, ecologists, and wildlife biologists to make more informed decisions for wildlife conservation. The US company Vulcan Incorpated in partnership with many conservation and technology partners developed it.
Since 2017, EarthRanger combines real-time data from ranger patrols, remote imaging and various sensors. Since September 2021, EarthRanger is part of the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence (AI2). This move combines top research, engineering, product resources and talent to create greater positive impact.Several environmental NGOs use this software, including GPS technology, but often adapt it to their specific needs.
EarthRanger decided to introduce a technology award from this year. By mid-year, environmental organisations had to submit their entries.
On 2 November this year, the winners were announced. The GCF and the Kenyan organisation Lion Guardians received the inaugural “Conservation Tech Award”. It was developed to promote innovation and development in conservation solutions. The award recognises organisations using technology to protect endangered species, monitor ecological changes and animal behavior, and promote peaceful human-wildlife coexistence.
Another type of tracker is tested by the GCF in South Africa since a few months. They are lightweight ear tags, which developed for the cattle industry in Australia. All giraffe are regularly monitored.
Giraffe Conservation Foundation
As an EarthRanger user, the GCF has used machine learning, rapid geospatial data management and visualisation to understand giraffes’ ways and advocate for their protection. The GCF created twiga tracker initiative, the largest GPS satellite tracking study ever conducted on giraffes. With the solar-powered tracking devices the GCF follows their migration patterns, observe their interactions with their environments, and the trackers also provide aid in anti-poaching efforts.
The GCF is also conducting repeated surveys of giraffe populations using pattern recognition and machine learning to compile a database of all known individual giraffes in key conservation landscapes, in addition to using genetics to reclassify giraffe taxonomy from one to four distinct species. GCF’s hope is to inspire a passion to protect these species, which play a vital role in maintaining a balance in ecosystems - yet have dropped by almost 30 percent in the last 3 decades due to habitat loss, human population growth, disease and poaching.
Four giraffe species identified
According to the GCF, there are four distinct species of giraffe in Africa – Masai, southern, northern and Reticulated giraffe, with several subspecies.
All four giraffe species and their subspecies live in geographically distinct areas throughout Africa and there are only a total about 100,000 giraffe remaining in the wild.
There are some 12,000 Angolan giraffe as well as 100 South African giraffe in Namibia. Giraffe are widely distributed throughout the country and occur on private and communal land as well as in national parks.
Khomas youth learn about giraffe conservation
The GCF has started a youth programme in the Khomas Region. The Khomas Environmental Education Programme (KEEP) is an interactive environmental education programme. It aims to kindle interest in young Namibians to care for their environment. They are also taken on field trips to experience nature. KEEP is tailored for primary school children in Windhoek, particularly from disadvantaged schools.
World giraffe day on 21 June
A few years ago, the GCF introduced the world giraffe day to raise awareness for giraffe as threatened species. On this day, environmentalists, NGOs, zoos and schools in many countries undertake activities including fundraising for giraffe conservation.
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