If we ever needed reminding just how awesome, and amusing giraffes can be, then our visit last week to photograph the rare Rothschild’s giraffes at Woburn Safari Park, Bedfordshire, here in the UK, for today’s first ever World Giraffe Day, wasn’t a bad way to do it.
Crouched uncomfortably on the back of an open pick-up in their large enclosure with keeper Lindsay Banks, researcher Dominique Rhoades and a prickly pile of fresh browse for them to eat, we were soon being nudged and bumped by half a dozen big bony heads as their long necks craned in to reach the choicest bits of food.
All teeth and purple tongues, these huge and breath-taking animals had us surrounded as they gently nibbled from the impromptu buffet at our feet. It didn’t take long for either photographers or subjects to lose their inhibitions and we were all soon deftly negotiating our way around each other to get exactly what we wanted!
We’ve photographed giraffes umpteen times on our African adventures in the past, but have never been close enough to feel their breath before (or be dribbled on!) It was a real treat sitting among a swaying forest of necks with a privileged view of them quietly and intently feeding. Thanks to all the keepers and crew at Woburn who helped make it happen on the day.
The reason for our up close and personal giraffe encounter? Today’s the first-ever annual giraffe day, launched by the Giraffe Conservation Foundation (GCF) wildlife charity to raise awareness about the plight of giraffe. Despite being an iconic African animal, and the tallest mammal on the planet, the giraffe’s conservation needs have been sadly overlooked. There are now fewer than 80,000 giraffe in the wild, less than a fifth the number of elephants.
Woburn Safari Park, with a herd of 17 Rothschild’s giraffes, is one of 50 wild animal collections celebrating World Giraffe Day today with a series of special events. We wanted to do something to help flag up this first ever global giraffe day so we arranged the special photo-call through our links with the GCF. Having just done a book on giraffes we’ve become even more aware of just how special these creatures are and of the real need for conservation initiatives like those supported by the foundation.
For example there are only 1,000 or so Rothschild’s giraffes in the wild and Woburn’s successful breeding herd of this rare sub-species, managed by keeper Lindsay to promote natural social structure within the herd, is helping bolster genetic variation in the wild population. Two more calves are expected to be born there any day.
‘Giraffe play an important part in the African eco-system, opening up areas for new growth and dispersing seeds,’ says former keeper and giraffe conservationist Dominique. ‘The misconception that giraffe are abundant is the reason why World Giraffe Day is so important in order to raise awareness of their needs in Africa and to ensure their future survival,’ she says.
The Giraffe Conservation Foundation was set up to promote and support giraffe conservation, particularly in parts of Africa where giraffe populations are in trouble. Its chairman, leading giraffe expert Dr Julian Fennessey, is hoping this first dedicated day for giraffes will throw a much-needed spotlight on these amazing animals. ‘The need to increase education and awareness about giraffes is critical at a time when their numbers are plummeting. They truly are the forgotten megafauna,’ he says.