Going the extra mile for giraffe

Last week a giraffe tragically died after injuring its head while being transported under a bridge on the N1 in Centurion in Gauteng. From the outcry from the public, non-governmental organisations and the media there seemed to be the assumption that this is a common occurrence… that wildlife is badly handled during game capture and transport, thus resulting in multiple deaths, that the industry is unregulated and in disarray.

Not that many years ago we would not have even known this about incident; there were no cellphone cameras, no social media and only a very small number of activists and armchair experts would be baying for blood.

In fact, not that many years ago we did not need to manage wildlife. Animals roamed freely, managed their own numbers through weather and land conditions as well as prey/predator interaction. Then humans laid claim to the land, erected fences, destroyed migration routes and gene pool diversification and, with the competition between wildlife and domestic stock for grazing, something had to go. There was deemed to be no value in wildlife and it was all but eradicated.

But something was missing and well-meaning man developed game reserves of various sizes. Suddenly tourism was the "in thing" and we felt better watching wildlife and the odd murder or two as a lion brought down a giraffe. That was natural and fuelled our morbid fascination within the natural world.

Sadly, these game reserves were too small to manage their own populations and all too soon man once again began to intervene, often through trial and error rather than knowledge and science.

Unfortunately too, these farms (reserves are simply wildlife farms) required money to operate and in most instances tourism simply did not pay the bills and therefore trading in wildlife became a viable option. This trade was both passive (relocation of wildlife for gain) and terminal (hunting of wildlife for gain) and both of these were also a viable management tool.

The wildlife capture and relocation industry was also to be a huge learning curve, commencing with horses and beaters driving animals until the fell over from sheer exhaustion or driving them into holding pens, loading them onto trucks or trains and being satisfied with a huge loss in death and injury during capture (including to man and steed), transport and animals getting released at the new destination only to drop dead of capture myopathy. This was not safe, humane or profitable.

The industry evolved, man and science joined forces, capture drugs were adapted and developed, capture methods were improved, transport and transport drugs were improved and steed gave way to helicopter. All of this greatly improved the survival rate of the wildlife.

Today game capture requires a trained crew, vet, pilot, logistics and is an expensive operation with little margin for error. For the most part wildlife is bought via tender and once the animal is captured it is the responsibility of the capture operation and the new owner.

Let's go back to the giraffe. Interesting animals, all but mute, timid and calm to look at and yet they can be extremely vicious if provoked, and sometimes even without provocation. They are fascinating to watch and especially when they roll bones in their mouths (this is called osteophagy) for nutriments and go into a trance state and pass the bones between each other. Some species of giraffe are endangered and as usual the lack of habitat is the biggest threat facing these creatures.

Old giraffe do not translocate easily and so the sub-adults and young adults are the main marketable animals. They are expensive to capture usually requiring a vet, helicopter and drugs and this could set you back around R10,000 per animal. This is in addition to the purchase price and excludes the travel to the new reserve.

The capture itself requires skill in that the lightest effective immobilisation drug is used. Once down the capture team have to move in quickly and raise the giraffe's head up above the heart. Often this is achieved by placing a step-ladder against a capture vehicle and putting the giraffe's head and neck on the ladder. The blindfold and harness are fitted, the drug reversal done, the animal pushed and prodded and, once moving, it is loaded into the transport trailer and a sedative administered. With the blindfold on and head sticking up high, it heads for its new home. Here it is removed from the trailer, the blindfold slipped off and the animal released.

This all sounds so easy until you realise you are working with a timid semi-comatose creature of around 700kg to 1,400kg with hooves the size of dinner plates that will repel a lion with a kick. You are not trying to load your favourite pony into a horsebox (even that can be an interesting mission when the pony is having an off day).

In the last 60 years or so of game capture, it is likely a few thousand giraffe have been relocated by road and I would like to see the stats of how many died from hitting a bridge during transport. I suspect that the incidence is likely lower than of being bitten by a shark. Maybe last week's episode is the first one and the resultant hysteria is a tad misplaced.

By all means blame the death of this animal on the driver and the route he decided to take. Maybe he erred on managing the animal under the bridge, but I was not there and speculation is always dangerous.

What I do know is that no expert game capture organisation can afford the death of an animal under its care; it is costly to them in loss of direct revenue, in professional recognition and in trial by media, let alone any animal welfare issue.

The Game Capture and Care Manual, first published in 1993 and edited by the late Dr Andrew McKenzie, is a basis for ethics and has been extensively used and many components updated.

Sadly, giraffe will continue to die outside of predator interaction and snakebites. Other fatalities are due to lightning strikes (often on reserves where they did not occur naturally), by electrocution from sagging or incorrectly placed power lines, from reaction to capture drugs (as do people in hospitals from anaesthetics), from injury during a good capture gone bad, and from capture myopathy. However, research into improved drugs and methods will continue.

We cannot deny that there are "cowboys" in the industry, we do not live in a perfect world and cost often drives people to use the services of capture organisations which don't have a great reputation. But for the most part the industry self regulates itself through its Game Capture and Translocation Association.

The reality is that we have created small fenced farms and animals have lost their freedom and ability to roam the landscape and manage themselves. Humans will continue to intervene and regretfully we are not perfect and mistakes and accidents will happen. This is not desirable, but it is inevitable.

The ultimate solution is no fences and free-roaming wildlife. But then there is the small matter of reality.

Tim Neary is a conservationist and broadcaster.