Enjoy your Friday

“Do we always enjoy every day?” I asked The Family. “No,” that was a clear answer. But then I checked up what we did this day on the last five years, and I think we enjoyed it every year.

What did we manage to do? We danced in a shack which had filled up with fog, we went out for a walk in the neighbourhood during the lockdown, we spent an evening at a bar, we walked in the oldest mountains in the country, and we fed giraffes. Sometimes one can have have fun, I think. What should we do today?

Half a day in the Mara triangle

A bend in the river Mara lay a little way down from the hotel that we were in. This part of the Maasai Mara Game Reserve was called the Mara Triangle, and lay pretty far from the main entrance to the reserve. We arrived in the middle of the afternoon, and left for a game drive soon after lunch.

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Although we spent a long time waiting for wildebeest to cross the river, an iconic sight, we managed to see quite a variety of wildlife that afternoon. The slideshow above has a selection of what we saw: from butterflies to lions.

Tall, dark, and handsome

Giraffes really stand out on the plains of East Africa. From the distance their spindly legs and slightly-bent-forward necks make them loom over the horizon like distant oil pumps busy sucking petroleum out of the earth. But what a difference when you get close! You see the elegant neck, the long nostrils, the hooded eyes and the long lips which grasp and strip leaves from branches of thorny acacia trees.

I was busy taking another copycat photo of a lone acacia tree on the East African plains, with a giraffe walking towards it. I peered intently at the faint line of white above the horizon. The Family had pointed it out earlier, while I was busy looking at other things. Was it a line of distant mountains? Probably not, I concluded. If the weather had been clear enough for a sight of Kilimanjaro, it would have been in a different direction. Also, nothing around it was high enough to be clad in snow. Probably clouds, I thought. While I was busy with this, MONT and The Family had discovered a group of Masai giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis tippelskirchii). One could tell by the fact that the dark patches on their flanks were star shaped and grew lighter from the middle outwards, and they proceeded most of the way down their legs. FONT counted six. The Family repeated the count and found seven. MONT counted again and found nine. There were actually nine that we could see, apart from the lone animal which I’d been photographing on the other side of the road.

I’d read somewhere that male Masai giraffe eat twigs from the top of a tree, whereas the female prefers the lower branches. I couldn’t see any such clear difference between the individuals. So were they all male? It seems there is another way to tell the sexes apart. A male’s mane stops before it reaches the head, whereas the female’s continues so that the head is covered. This group was all male. I was to find later that giraffe herds can be all male, largely female and calves, or mixed, and the composition of the herd is not fixed. So, while giraffes socialize, they are not as social as elephants, hyenas, or apes. This group seemed comfortable with each other, and browsed together as long as we watched, without seeming to communicate.

A giraffe is a giraffe. Is it?

Until yesterday I knew that a giraffe is a long-necked mammal with brown patches of fur on white, which walked gracefully through east African savannas, delicately picking leaves off the tops of trees. Now, while idly surfing for information on giraffes online, I find that there are more species of giraffes than I could hope to see in one trip. Web sites called Giraffe Conservation Foundation and Giraffe Worlds list out the four main species of giraffes: the northern, the southern, the Masai and the Reticulated. IUCN, meanwhile counts only one species, but concedes that these four are subspecies, each deserving of individual conservation effort. When I tried to access original literature on giraffes I was stunned to find how little they have been studied.

The Masai giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis tippelskirchi) ranges over large parts of Kenya and Tanzania, with an isolated population in Zambia. Even with the intense conservation effort that Kenya and Tanzania are known for, the population of the Masai giraffe has halved over the last decades, and now stands at about 35,000 individuals. This year it has been moved from a classification of Vulnerable to Endangered. It is such a pity that the tallest animal on earth, the 6 meter high adult Masai giraffe, is in danger of becoming extinct.

The reticulated giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis reticulata) can be found in northern Kenya and southern Ethiopia (and probably inside Somalia as well). Most counts place their population at about 15,000. This has also been moved into the class of endangered species.

Distribution of giraffe species

The northern giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis camelopardalis) has extremely fragmented habitat, and therefore has been reclassified this year as Critically Endangered. The northern giraffe contains populations called the Nubian, Kordofan and West African giraffes. The Nubian giraffe can be seen in north-western Kenya, South Sudan, and Uganda. The Kordofan giraffe can be seen in Central African Republic, Chad, and Cameroon. To see the West African giraffe you need to travel to the extreme west of Niger. This population has only about 600 individuals left. Some add the Rothschild’s giraffe, from the Baringo area of Kenya, as a separate population to this species. This can be seen in the breeding center in Nairobi.

The southern giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis giraffa) has two sub-populations: the Angolan and South African. Fortunately, the conservation effort for this species has paid off, and both populations are on the increase. I understand that this holds out hope for giraffe conservation across the continent, although populations like the West African and Rothschild’s giraffes will have to pass through a really narrow genetic bottleneck. I understand that giraffes evolved in the Miocene era, about when apes were diverging from monkeys, and so evolved along with us in the East African Rift Valley geography which is our ur-homeland.

For a mere traveler like me, Kenya seems to be the most giraffe-diverse country. One should be able to see the Masai, reticulated, Rothschild’s, and Nubian giraffes in this one country.