Animal Tales

Keeper on the Spot

Giraffe

Giraffes often gather in groups, making the team’s job of identifying them even harder.

The keepers at the Milwaukee County Zoo don’t just take care of animals here – many of them also participate in conservation initiatives around the world. In May 2016, pachyderm supervisor Joan Stasica spent 10 days in northwestern Namibia as a volunteer research assistant through the Giraffe Conservation Foundation (GCF). Namibia, located on the southwest coast of Africa, has a sparse human population but is rich in wildlife, including giraffes. Here’s her story in her own words.

When I sat down to write this article, I was torn as to what aspect of the trip I should focus on, because to me it was all so incredible. Do I tell you about the stark beauty of the Namibian desert? Do I summarize the data we collected? Do I tell you the funny anecdotes, or describe the people I met? Maybe I can describe a typical day in the field.

I always woke up early in the field. My companions referred to me as the camp barista, because I’d get up, build a fire and have the coffee ready before any of them emerged from their tents. I liked this cool, quiet alone time in the desert, listening to bird calls and the fire crackling. When my companions awoke – Emma, the researcher, and Gareth and Alice, British zookeepers – we’d have coffee and a simple breakfast. Then we’d clean up and double-check that the ATV was fully stocked. Our field equipment would already be packed: a high-quality camera, a GPS, binoculars, huge binders full of giraffe photos, a dart gun and supplies to preserve any tissue samples we collected. We also brought field guides of every description, a satellite phone for emergencies, our journals, extra sunscreen, hats and water bottles. In the back of the ATV was a very small fridge that plugged into the vehicle and housed the most treasured supplies of all: leftovers from last night’s dinner that we would eat for lunch and a single beer or cider for each of us to drink at dusk. This would be our traditional “sundowner,” the only cold beverage we’d drink all day.

Emma is a doctorate student from the University of Dublin studying several aspects of giraffe population dynamics. She goes out in the field every month. The primary danger facing giraffes in Namibia is habitat loss. Very little is known about how the Namibian giraffe population uses its habitat, so Emma is looking at the movement of groups and individuals through the region and some of the factors that influence that movement, particularly the seasonal stages of vegetation growth. She’s also looking at the composition of groups and whether a few males are fathering all the young or many males are getting a chance to breed. This information should help GCF determine what to focus on when working on giraffe conservation in Namibia.

Garth and Emma

Garth and Emma compare the giraffe they just photographed with previously identified giraffes.

Most of our day was spent in the ATV. Emma would drive, and Gareth, Alice and I would scan the landscape for animal life. We’d usually stop to gawk and take pictures of any animal we saw, but when we spotted a giraffe, we got down to business. Let’s say we spotted a single giraffe standing under a tree. Even as Emma was slowing the ATV, one of us would be trying to get a decent picture of the giraffe, preferably from the side. Someone else would be recording the GPS coordinates of our location, Emma would be reminding us to write down the species of tree the giraffe was feeding on, and whoever was left would be madly flipping through the binders of photos, trying to determine if the giraffe outside was already pictured and identified. The first day Gareth, Alice and I did this, it seemed ridiculously difficult; we were supposed to flip as quickly as possible through a binder with 50 to 80 photos of giraffes and identify the exact giraffe that was standing outside? It seemed impossible. But by our fourth or fifth day in the field, we were saying things like, “Oh, that’s Coffee Girl; she’s got that weird starburst pattern on her left side. We saw her yesterday.”

If we found the giraffe in the binder, we’d record its ID number and name on our data sheet beside our GPS coordinates and the numbers of any new photos we’d taken. The binder photos also indicated which giraffes had been darted for DNA samples. If the giraffe outside had not been darted, one of us would carefully pass the dart gun to Emma, and she’d reposition the ATV until she had a good shot. The darts are designed to collect a snippet of tissue and then bounce off. If Emma hit the giraffe, Alice, Gareth and I would jump out of the ATV and retrieve the dart. (By this time, the giraffe would have angrily run off.) The darts were neon blue and usually easy to locate on the rocky desert soil. But occasionally one would bounce into vegetation, and finding it would become a group project. We’d then remove the tissue sample from the dart and place it into a tube of ethanol for preservation.

If the giraffe wasn’t already pictured in our giraffe binders, we’d try to get a few pictures and record the photo numbers next to the GPS location on our data sheet. After returning from the field, we spent a day in the GCF offices double-checking these unidentified giraffes, assigning them ID numbers, printing their photos and adding them to the binders.

Joan Stasica

Joan Stasica stands in an elephant footprint while assisting with fieldwork in Namibia

So that was the procedure if we saw one giraffe browsing on a tree. It doesn’t sound that complicated, right? But the thing is, we rarely saw just one giraffe, calmly browsing on a tree. We’d usually see five or six giraffes at a time, and they’d be wandering in and out of vegetation, and the data collection process would become exponentially more difficult.

Between giraffe sightings and data collection, we would drive through Emma’s study sites and stop for lunch. Toward the end of the day, as the sun started to go down, we’d stop to collect firewood. Back at camp, Emma would make dinner over the open fire while Gareth, Alice and I double-checked our giraffe IDs for the day and did whatever data entry we could on the GCF laptop before it died. After dinner, we’d make tea, talk and watch the stars come out, and then we’d get ready for bed. It was a simple routine, uncluttered by phones, television and the Internet, and it was immensely satisfying. I will return to Namibia in February on a trip supported by the Zoological Society.

We always say our animals are ambassadors for their wild counterparts, but zookeepers are ambassadors as well. Trying to get the public interested and invested in wild animals and the environment is a big part of our job. Initiatives like this give us firsthand information to share with the public and helps us make our conservation message more personal and immediate. It also brings home to us exactly what we’re working for. Seeing the wild versions of our animals, their habitats and the threats they face can spur us to work harder to get our message out.

By Joan Stasica

From the Winter 2018 issue of Alive