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Wildlife The Fennessys


To Save These Rare Giraffes, Uganda Built an Ark (of Sorts)

October 26, 2016 Tim Sohn

Retrieved from: https://www.nrdc.org/onearth/save-these-rare-giraffes-uganda-built-ark-sorts

To see the full story, visit this link above.

As poachers and oil drills threaten a recently war-torn national park, a team of rangers and scientists send an endangered herd on an epic journey.

About 1,250 endangered Rothchild’s giraffes live north of the Nile River in Uganda’s Murchison Falls National Park.


Joel Sartore

The veterinarian leaned out the Land Cruiser’s passenger-side window, a tranquilizer gun propped on his shoulder. After eyeing a herd of giraffes, he leveled the rifle and took a shot. Suddenly, two of the animals broke into a clumsily elegant lope until one, with a dart’s pink faux feathers visible in its haunch, slowed. A team of park rangers jumped out of another vehicle and ran toward the groggy yet spooked giraffe. They slung a rope around its chest, then crossed the rope behind the animal’s sloping back. The giraffe dragged the men along for a few seconds before it wobbled and came crashing down, Gulliver laid low by Lilliputians.

A group of scientists and vets sprinted toward the animal, through the tall grass of Uganda’s Murchison Falls National Park. Despite a heavy dose of tranquilizer, the 2,000-pound male wasn’t out cold. Four men leaned on his torso to hold him down. Others skittered about, measuring every body part, taking the giraffe’s temperature, and drawing blood samples.

“Ten minutes!” shouted Liza Dadone, an American veterinarian, as she bent low and pressed a stethoscope to the animal’s heaving chest. “Heart rate 70!”

Timing was crucial. Given a giraffe’s complicated physiology—for one thing, getting blood to its extremities requires exceptionally high blood pressure—it was important to minimize its time on the ground. Additionally, a near-lethal dose of anesthesia is necessary to ensure giraffes go down quickly instead of running off and injuring themselves. The team had 20 minutes to administer the tranquilizer’s antidote, or the patient might never wake up.

Straddling the animal’s long neck and holding a towel over his eyes to keep him calm was the team’s unofficial leader, Julian Fennessy, a 42-year-old Australian biologist and founder of the Namibia-based Giraffe Conservation Foundation (GCF). “Oof! That’s a big boy!” he said, smiling.

It was early afternoon on a warm January day in Uganda’s largest national park, a 1,500-square-mile idyll of grasslands, forests, and hills, bisected by the Victoria Nile and teeming with wildlife—a casual drive through might yield sightings of elephants, hippos, kob, oribi, buffalo, warthogs, baboons, monkeys, and countless birds. Fennessy and his team were there to help the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) with a unique translocation of 20 rare giraffes from the section of the park north of the river, where they are under growing threat from oil drilling and poaching, to its more removed southern sector. Fennessy and his wife, Stephanie, who cofounded and helps run GCF, had been coordinating with the UWA for more than a year on what they dubbed Operation Twiga, using the Swahili word for giraffe. This afternoon’s capture was the 17th in nearly two weeks, and the team had clearly honed their wrangling process.


For the Fennessys, giraffes are a family affair. Julian and Steph, who had hair from the first giraffe they tagged together woven into their wedding rings, often bring their children, Luca, 10, and Molly, 7, to work with them.

George Woodcock/©AGB Films

The giraffe on the ground bucked, blowing massive bursts of hot breath from his nostrils as the rangers fitted a yellow sugar sack over his head as an improvised blindfold. Then they threaded a rope around his chest and gathered around him the animal in a loose circle, with teams of men on each end of the rope. One ranger held a rope around the giraffe’s neck, like a leash. In the center, Fennessy stood over his haunch and slapped it three times.

“Heya! Come on, get up!” No response. Fennessy leaned in, grabbed the animal’s long, thin tail with one hand, and bit down. Suddenly, the giraffe snapped to life and struggled to his feet. He spun left, thrashing his head, then spun right, as the rope handlers hustled to guide him forward into a four-foot-wide trailer nearby. The man holding the neck leash reeled the giraffe in while others closed the gate behind him. The awkward dance was over.

The tail bite, Fennessy revealed, is a trick he learned from a South African veterinarian. “Obviously it’s been effective,” he said, “though I have to say, it doesn’t taste great.”

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