Aoife Hardesty interviews Emma Hart, a PhD student about the highs and lows of working with giraffes in Namibia.
Giraffes may be one of the strangest looking mammals on the planet. Everything about them is long and tall, they tend to reach a total height of between 14 and 18 feet with their neck being roughly 6 foot in length. Their long necks enable them to feed without competition by grazing at heights which shorter grazers cannot reach, but their necks are also useful for combat. Males establish dominance by ‘necking,’ which is fighting using their long necks as weapons. Like cows, giraffes are ruminants which means that they partially digest their food in a specialised stomach, before regurgitating it to chew it up some more.
For Emma Hart, these bizarre creatures are a big part of everyday life. Hart manages “a conservation research programme in northwest Namibia… In partnership with UCD and the Giraffe Conservation Foundation (GCF).” The programme aims to learn more about giraffes, to get a deeper understanding of giraffe behaviour in the wild. “The results of the study will inform conservation management of the giraffe population both here in Namibia and across the other 20 countries in sub-Saharan Africa that are working to ensure a future for this iconic species.”
“There is no doubt that the biggest threat facing giraffe is human population growth. As our numbers continue to rise there is increasing competition for space.”
Giraffe research is still in its infancy, Hart says: “we still know very little about the behaviour and genetics of this species. As such perhaps the most exciting thing about giraffe is not what we know, but what we don’t yet know.”
With a BA and MA in psychology, Hart had begun a PhD in Edinburgh but “forewent this opportunity in favour of a job offer to work in community-based-conservation in Uganda.” After “making the general decision to work in wildife research in southern Africa I must have contacted one hundred organisations looking for a position. Every email I sent I received the same answer- conservation research in Africa is extremely competitive and you are unlikely to get a foot in the door.”
Hart would not be dissuaded however, “I decided to pack a rucksack and go and see if I might have more luck in person.” Hart travelled to Namibia where she met “Dr. Julian Fennessy (GCF) who was looking for someone to take on a giraffe conservation project in the Namib Desert.” She started work on the project in 2016, and later that year “made contact with UCD who were extremely supportive of the project from the outset and I am now studying for a PhD in Zoology through the Laboratory of Wildlife Ecology and Behaviour in the School of Biology and Environmental Science.”
Working on this project, there is no typical schedule. Days could be spent drafting papers, sitting “at the computer wrestling with statictical analyses. Other days are spent provisioning and planning for research expeditions, writing funding proposals or talking to mechanics about never ending repairs on the research vehicle!”
Hart’s descriptions of days out in the field sound like a wild adventure. The “days start with a sunrise and a cup of hot coffee by an open fire,” and with the study area spanning “an area of arid desert stretching 4500km2,” there is a huge amount of ground to cover each day. “Each day I tackle a section of this in the 4×4, tracking and observing giraffe and collecting behavioural and genetic data.”
Hart describes the landscape as “wild and open…where, in the constant shadow of drought, all of life survives on a knife edge.”
The study region “is extremely remote” and one of the biggest challenges is “if something goes wrong, there is no one to call.” Hart describes the landscape as “wild and open…where, in the constant shadow of drought, all of life survives on a knife edge.” The world Hart works in is filled with animal life, not just giraffes: “Elephant stand on tip-toe stretching their trunks to reach the branches of century old acacias, mountain zebra scale impossible rocky outcrops and desert lion stalk the dry riverbeds in search of oryx, kudu and springbok.”
This “theatre of nature all around every day is extraordinary and every day serves to remind us of the intrinsic value of such ecosystems and the pressing need to protect and conserve them.”
In 2016, the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) announced that giraffes had been moved from “least concern” to “vulnerable” in the listings of endangered animals. “In the last thirty years… Giraffe numbers have declined by 35-40% in the wild,” says Hart. “There is no doubt that the biggest threat facing giraffe is human population growth. As our numbers continue to rise there is increasing competition for space. For giraffe, who need vast areas to roam, that is a disaster.” However, Hart remains optimistic, she believes “there is hope… if we as individuals can start to live more sustainably, and encourage others to do the same, we can create a future where there is space for giraffe.”
Hart believes it is necessary for people in Ireland to care about conservation projects elsewhere in the world. “If we want to live in a world that includes giraffe, elephant, gorilla or rhino, amongst many others, we in Ireland have to act now to support less developed countries as they fight to protect the habitats of these species.”
DID YOU KNOW?
Necking occurs in two forms; low-intensity and high-intensity. In low-intensity necking the males lean against each other’s necks to try and push the other off balance. High-intensity necking is where they get to use their horn-like bumps (which are called ossicones). The giraffes swing their necks at each other and attempt to land blows on their opponent with their ossicones. Ossicones are not true horns because they are made of bone-like cartilage and not actual bone.