Bristol Zoo conservationists forced to put off trip to help save giraffes

Bristol Zoo conservationists forced to put off trip to help save giraffes

Conservationists from Bristol Zoological Society have postponed a trip to Cameroon to help protect Critically Endangered giraffes because of the Omicron situation.

But their plans to train eco-guards in Bénoué National Park to use Smartphone software to record illegal activities, such as cattle herding, mining and hunting will still go ahead.

Dr Caspian Johnson and Dr Sam Penny called off their trip less than 24 hours before they were due to fly out. The decision was taken because although they could have reached Cameroon they may not have been able to return because of potential travel restrictions.

However Dr Johnson said partners in Cameroon would be able to train the guards to use the ground-breaking programme called SMART (Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool).

And he said the three–week field trip to Africa would be re-arranged as soon as the as soon as the current situation eased and travel restrictions were relaxed.

Around 30 eco-guards patrol an area of 932 miles, the size of Greater London.

Dr Johnson said: “The number of eco-guards is not enough to cover the whole park but this tool will help them to become more effective. It’s about maximising the resources that are there.”

“The programme allows national park directors, or Conservators, to map out the patrol effort of their teams and the presence of illegal activity through a standardised process of data collection, analysis and reporting of data collected by eco-guards on patrol.

“Critically, this enables the conservator of the national park to make informed decisions about where to send patrols and how to allocate resources to protect the park’s biodiversity.” 

It is estimated there are fewer than 2,000 of these giraffes across their range in West and Central Africa, with possibly only around 45 individuals in Bénoué National Park.

The subspecies is now listed as Critically Endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Dr Johnson said: “Without proper support, the Kordofan giraffe could disappear from this park, which has already lost African wild dogs, cheetahs and black rhinos. 

“The long-term goal is to reduce illegal activity in the national park and bolster the wildlife population, particularly of the Kordofan giraffes.

“By protecting them we are also protecting the area in which they live and other species in that environment are also protected.”

He said the data collected during the patrols will also help explain why giraffe numbers have declined in the national park.

Dr Johnson said: “We know they are affected by people, when people move in giraffes move out.

“We suspect it is the direct competition for land with cattle herders who come in huge numbers cutting branches off trees favoured by giraffes as well as the issue of disturbance. 

“Giraffes are sensitive to disturbance. That could affect their breeding successes and there is also general encroachment and mining which prevents giraffes being able to move around like they normally would.

“But it’s only through systematic research over a period of time that we will find out the real reasons.”

Dr Johnson and Dr Penny’s trip to Cameroon, supported with funding from the National Geographic Society, will now hopefully take place next year.

Visitors to Bristol Zoological Society's Wild Place Project can learn more about this work in Cameroon at the giraffe exhibit, where three giraffes live in a recreation of part of Bénoué National Park.

These are reticulated giraffes, which are found across northern and north-eastern Kenya, and in southern Somalia and southern Ethiopia, and are also under threat.

In total the number of giraffes in the wild have fallen from 140,000 to less than 80,000 in just 15 years. There are now fewer giraffes left in the wild than African elephants.

Wild Place Project and Bristol Zoo Gardens are run by Bristol Zoological Society, which is a conservation and education charity and relies on the generous support of the public not only to fund its important work at both zoos, but also its vital education and community outreach programme.

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