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Inside a Daring Giraffe Rescue in Kenya

By Ami Vitale

Jun 4, 2021

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Mike Parkei, a ranger for Ruko Conservancy, looks after eight Rothschild’s giraffes who had been stranded on Longicharo Island in western Kenya.

Photo by Ami Vitale/SaveGiraffesNow

Mike Parkei, a ranger for Ruko Conservancy, looks after eight Rothschild’s giraffes who had been stranded on Longicharo Island in western Kenya.

Stranded giraffes. Resourceful conservationists. On a trip to Kenya, wildlife photographer Ami Vitale documented their dramatic tale.

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This story is part of Travel Tales, a series of life-changing adventures on afar.com. Read more stories of transformative trips on the Travel Tales home pageand be sure to subscribe to the podcast! 

For the last decade, I’ve been seeking out stories about individuals who, against all odds, have come together to protect wildlife and the natural world.

This particular story was about a daring giraffe rescue—a Rothschild’s giraffe rescue, to be specific. The Rothschild’s giraffe is one of the most endangered subspecies of giraffes. There are only about 800 of them in Kenya and perhaps 2,000 to 3,000 of them left in the world. Their population has declined by well over 50 percent in less than 30 years and scientists are calling it a “silent extinction.” They’re amazing, inquisitive creatures and quite intelligent but we still don’t know a lot about them.  

About a decade ago, conservationists moved eight of these giraffes to a remote peninsula far away from humanity. The giraffes were thriving, and they had even brought peace to two warring communities. Things were going well until the changing climate began to impact the landscape.

In the Rift Valley of Kenya, they began experiencing massive flooding. Vast, sweeping plains were swallowed up by Lake Baringo. The lake grew 40 to 50 feet and, at times, grew six inches every single day. Eventually, the peninsula became completely cut off from the rest of the valley and the giraffes were marooned on this newly formed island. 

Today, fewer than 3,000 Rothschild’s giraffes are left in Africa, with about 800 in Kenya.

As the flooding continued, one giraffe named Asiwa became separated from the rest of the giraffes who moved to higher ground. She was stranded on the lower part of the island and trying to survive alongside crocodiles, hippos, warthogs, and deadly, poisonous snakes.

Asiwa was in the most danger, but all eight of these giraffes were at risk. They were going to slowly die because there was not enough food, or they would be killed by predators, or they would be totally flooded out. Their future was bleak, so a plan was devised to move these giraffes to the mainland, a 44,000-acre partially fenced-in conservancy named RukoSave Giraffes Now, the Ruko Conservancy, the Northern Rangelands Trust, and Kenya Wildlife Service came together for this ambitious rescue plan. The long-term goal is to repopulate the whole western Rift Valley—the giraffes’ historical home—in the next 20 to 30 years.

How do you move 18-foot-tall creatures off an island? A makeshift raft was built and the plan was to coax them to walk on the raft using delicious mangoes and other food. The only problem was that the giraffes were not falling for the plan, which meant they needed to be darted with drugs and then moved onto the raft. 

The day of the rescue, the rescue team got up early, while it was still dark. There were about 15 to 20 men on the team. They had decided to begin with Asiwa, since she was in the most danger. The Kenya wildlife service vet went out to dart her by himself. Nobody was allowed to go because we wanted to make it as quiet as possible. I felt an intensity and energy simmering underneath the stillness—it is not easy to move a giraffe and this kind of rescue had never been done before. The stakes were high and if it failed, chances are they wouldn’t try to rescue the other giraffes.

The eight stranded giraffes were, one at a time, towed a mile from the island to their new home.

After the dart went in, Asiwa’s first reaction was to run. The island is covered in thick acacias and while Asiwa could move easily through this terrain with her long legs, it was not so easy for humans. Hook-thorn acacia have long, vicious thorns that hook into your skin and they are extremely painful. The acacias have another name: “wait-a-bit-bush,” because if you get caught by one, you have to slowly unhook yourself. We could not run quickly and easily.

One of the men, David O’Connor, president of Save Giraffes Now, looked like he had been through a war—he was all bloody and torn up. At one point, Asiwa headed straight towards the water. The team raced into the marshlands, hands flailing, urging her to stay on the land. When the anesthesia started to surge through her body, she fell in a difficult place, close to the water, wedged next to a tree. It was critical that when Asiwa fell, that the vet was there to immediately inject the reversal drug. If he didn’t, she would die. When giraffes go down, they can choke on their own saliva or their brains can be damaged by the changes in blood pressure.

My heart was racing and I was worried that it might not be successful. Catching Asiwa was just one small piece of a very complex operation. Can you imagine if she got scared in the middle of the lake, on a raft? Would she jump into the lake? That was my worst fear. I had spent enough time with these creatures to literally fall in love with them. There’s this intellectual piece of this story, but also an emotional element to it. Giraffes have an emotional intelligence and you can’t help but be emotionally involved too.  

My fears were just that: fears—the team did everything they could to make this move comfortable for Asiwa. They put socks in her ears to muffle any sounds and a blindfold over her head to calm her. They gently guided her towards the giraft with ropes. That’s what they called the raft: the giraft. She relaxed and walked right on without any struggle. 

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A little red speedboat slowly pulled the raft for a little more than a mile. It looked like a mini Noah’s Ark, except for the bright red speedboat. That didn’t exactly conjure biblical visions.

Vets were on standby to ensure the giraffes were safe, healthy, and relatively calm during and after the journey.

I had spent the last two weeks with the giraffes to make sure that they were comfortable with the drone and me. I had to think about how I would film and photograph in a way that would not impact the animals. As the move unfolded, my head was juggling a lot of different tasks: I needed to decide when to take photographs with my cameras and when to make videos; I also had to calculate the safest time to use the drone. I had about 40 pounds of equipment on my back and had to anticipate where I needed to be to get the most compelling images and, above all, never get in anyone’s way.

I had spent enough time with these creatures to literally fall in love with them. There’s this intellectual piece of this story, but also an emotional element to it.

The raft landed successfully and the team quickly took Asiwa’s blindfold off and the socks out of her ears. Then they let the door down for her to disembark. It all had to happen simultaneously and quickly. There was a crowd on the other side waiting with excitement. The team was trying to be quiet so it didn’t create any extra anxiety for her. But the moment she was safely off and on terra firma, there was a collective sigh and then cheering. Everyone was emotional and hugging one another. Mike, who had lived on that tiny island with the giraffes for a year, had tears streaming down his face.

The vets had to take great care when darting the giraffes, due to the unique physiology of the animals.

I went back to the conservancy the next morning and was trying to get more aerial images and footage. I didn’t want to scare Asiwa. I didn’t want to get too close. I just caught a glimpse of her from very high above and that was the moment I felt like I could finally relax.

After Asiwa’s rescue, all the other giraffes were safely moved off the island and onto the conservancy in May. They’re all doing great now.

I think the takeaway message is that stories like this can become our wake-up call. This story is a perfect metaphor. We are on this planet together and this, too, is our shared life raft. Yes, we have poked some holes in it, but if we make protecting wildlife a priority, nature is incredibly resilient.

These critters that inhabit the Earth are our fellow travelers, and our only friends, in this cold, dark universe. Our future happiness depends on them too. We need to give them a chance to succeed and then we can save our shared little life raft—our shared little giraft. —as told to Ninna Gaensler-Debs

Interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

>>Next: The Healing Power of Maine’s Forests

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