How many giraffes live in Niger?

Niger is the last country in the world where the elegant West African giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis peralta), characterized mainly by its light pelage and white legs, have survived. Over the past century, it has been extinct in almost its entire area of distribution, ranging originally from Senegal to eastern Niger. In 1996 there were less than 50 individuals inhabiting the thorny tiger bush near Niamey, the capital of Niger.

Due to the extraordinary successful cooperation of the Niger government, local communities, associations of guides and NGOs, numbers of giraffe in the area, called "giraffe zone", have begun to rise sharply. Giraffe have a unique pelage pattern by which it is possible to identify individual animals. Since 2005, the giraffe project has had unique albums that contain photographs of all recorded individuals in each year. The total number of giraffes is then estimated from the individuals recorded during the annual census and those recorded in previous years, using the method of capture-recapture.

Perhaps even more interesting than the number of giraffes is their coexistence with people and livestock in the "tiger bush". Giraffe here are in permanent contact with people, their crops and livestock. Kateřina Gašparová is a PhD student at our Faculty of Tropical AgriSciences working in cooperation with Giraffe Conservation Foundation. Equipped with a binoculars to distinguish individuals, a rangefinder to measure distances, a camera to record new individuals and a rough smartphone equipped with CyberTrackerÓ to record positions, behaviours and interactions, she collects unique data to understand the delicate relationship between giraffe, humans and livestock. While we assumed that giraffe as a wild animal would avoid livestock and herders the first data rather suggests that it is the giraffe that literally has the upper position in this relationship. Several hundred black Fulani and Red Bororo cattle with massive horns turn back when they meet a giraffe and change direction to avoid encountering a strange long-necked cow. Camels seem braver and sometimes even browse the same acacia as a giraffe. And the sheep and goats seem bravest in this regard - not uncommonly seeing them wandering beneath their feet - they are looking for acacia pods thrown by giraffe on the ground.

The same data as Kateřina collects in the giraffe zone is also collected by the rangers in the Gadabeji Reserve, 800 km northeast, where 8 young giraffes were translocated in November 2018 to set up a satellite population. The game guards from the Touareg community in charge of the monitoring are extremely efficient recognizing each of their giraffe even by track! But how do they communicate the Niamey team exactly which giraffe a track belongs to? To facilitate communication between teams that collect and process data, we have explained to the rangers how to name the giraffe and include them in an identification album. As a result, every giraffe in Gadabeji now has a name, such as Kader, according to a cousin of one of the rangers, who behaves just like this giraffe, in addition to a unique identification code to fit with the database requirements.

However, counting and naming giraffes is definitely not our only business in Niger. Another of my PhD students, Abdoul Razack Moussa Zabeirou, is collecting unique data in the Air massif far north in the Sahara to reveal details of the secret life of one of the last dama gazelles (Nanger dama) living on this planet. Another PhD student, Zuzana Holubová, will hopefully soon head south of the country, to park W, where we can still find elephants, hippos, lions and many species of antelopes. Zuzana supported by Wild Africa Conservation NGO will be particularly interested in the West African hartebeest (Alcelaphus bucelaphus major), whose numbers are still falling down throughout West Africa.

At the same time, cooperation with the universities of Niamey and Maradi is about to start, and I firmly believe that the number of students involved in the research and protection of large mammals in Niger will soon increase.

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