Category — Giraffe
Guest blogger: Kristina Meek, Wild Encounters
Have you fed a giraffe lately?
A little girl, maybe five years old, stretches her hand toward me, bits of dollar bills poking from between her small, clenched fingers. Her pink shirt bears the outline of a stubby giraffe with prominent eyes and smiling mouth. Among his spots are a couple drops of blue, evidence of the blueberry ice cream the child must have recently enjoyed. “Would you like to feed a giraffe?” I say. She nods her head slowly, seeming afraid to smile. “She’s been so excited to do this,” chimes the woman behind her, likely her grandmother. “Giraffes are her favorite.”
Working at the Cincinnati Zoo’s Giraffe Ridge, guiding guests in hand-feeding the world’s tallest land mammal, rewards the soul and the funny bone daily. I’m privileged to accept the girl’s crumpled three dollars and direct her to the railing of the deck, where another Interpreter of Wildlife and Fun shows her how to hold out lettuce leaves for eager young Jambo. She moves with caution as she gets closer and realizes the animal’s head is larger than her whole kindergartener body. But she accepts the lettuce and stretches her arm toward the netting, where 15-foot Jambo happily slurps it away. A smile takes over the girl’s face. Her eyes dance, she brings her hands together in front of her ice cream-spattered shirt and bounces up and down on her heels. Her grandmother, so taken by the sight, has forgotten to take a photo. “Do it again!” shouts Grandma. For the second piece of lettuce (feeders get two per experience) Grandma is ready to make her Facebook friends’ day… and remember this moment for life.
It’s World Giraffe Day and the perfect time to appreciate these spotted giants around the world and here at the Cincinnati Zoo, where we’re privileged to share four of them with the visiting public. Ours are Maasai Giraffes, the largest of nine subspecies, native to Kenya and Tanzania.
To say a giraffe is an incredible animal doesn’t convey their majesty, their beauty, and their personalities, things you can’t fully appreciate until you’re face-to-face with one. In the short time that I’ve been part of the Wild Encounters team, helping with feedings, I personally haven’t ceased to wonder at them each day, and evidence of their impact streams across the deck in the form of Zoo guests, ranging from nervous to ecstatic. As amazing as the giraffes are to behold in the Zoo, anyone who has seen them in the wild can attest to another whole level of awe. Fortunately, the Zoo provides a close-to-home encounter.
Giraffe feeding is the great leveler. It’s not just five-year-old girls who light up. It’s babies in their parents arms, boisterous school groups, tribes of teen-aged friends, middle-aged couples, elderly folks, people of every color and culture, from Mennonites to Chinese tourists, English-speaking or not, and individuals with every kind of disability.
I saw a blind woman blown away by the feeling of the giraffe’s breath on her arm and the wet tongue brushing her hand. I had a retirement-aged woman walk up and say, “I don’t have a child with me or anything. I’m just by myself, but this is on my bucket list.” I saw a teen boy who was clearly over hanging out with his parents all day, grin from ear to ear but then give his second piece of lettuce to his dad saying, “You HAVE try this.” There was one little boy who just couldn’t. Stop. Laughing. The whole time… Others cry. I’ll admit to having cried along with one or two of them.
In 1889, the Cincinnati Zoo became the first zoo in the Western Hemisphere to welcome a baby giraffe, a tradition that has taken breaks but continues today. Tessa and Kimbaumbau (Kimba), designated by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) as a match for breeding, arrived in 2010. Cece and Jambo joined them in 2013. Regulars and staff members have their favorites. Kimba, the male, is breathtaking in his sheer size, 16.5 feet with eyes the size of racquetballs. Tessa, the oldest, is graceful and sometimes shy to approach the deck. Cece and Jambo have been getting a lot of attention since we announced that each is carrying a baby, and no one can miss Jambo’s “messy” hair atop her ossicones.
According to the Wild Nature Institute, only about 80,000 giraffes remain in the wild. As a keystone species, their well-being affects the well-being of whole habitats. Over the past few years, the Zoo has supported the work of the Wild Nature Institute to conduct photographic mark-recapture surveys of Maasai giraffe in the fragmented Tarangire Ecosystem of northern Tanzania. A portion of the proceeds from our Gentle Giants: Private Giraffe Encounter program supports this effort.
I invite you to join us for giraffe feeding every day throughout the summer, from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. We hope that by meeting giraffes up close, at our Zoo or others, you’ll find the inspiration to take action.
Today my favorite visitor is Robbie. He’s about three years old. He and his big sis have just finished feeding, and now their parents just want them to pose for a moment with Cece behind them. Mom holds up her phone ready to snap, saying “Look at Mommy!” Sister faces the camera, posed and smiling, but Robbie is turned 180 degrees away, stock still and agog at the giraffe’s face on the other side of the netting. “Robbie! Robbie, turn around!” Mom pleads, glancing anxiously at the long line of people waiting. I’m happy to give her a couple of minutes to capture the shot. “Robbie, look at Mommy!” Big sister tugs at Robbie’s arm, encouraging him to turn. He’s mesmerized. Finally, Mom smiles and slips her phone into her purse. She’s just happy to see him happy. She takes his hand and guides him away to his next adventure.
June 21, 2016 No Comments
For more than 10 years, the Zoo has partnered with Miami University’s Project Dragonfly to lead graduate courses that take educators into the field to experience community-based conservation, participatory education and inquiry firsthand. This year, I had the fortunate opportunity to co-facilitate Earth Expeditions Kenya: People and Wildlife in Integrated Landscapes with Dave Jenike, the Zoo’s COO. We took 17 educators with us, including formal classroom teachers as well as informal educators from zoos and similar institutions. This is the fourth post in a series about our experience. Read the previous post in this blog series here.
In addition to working alongside the researchers and staff at the Lale’enok Resource Centre, we also took part in some other amazing activities.
Open Inquiries and Group Discussions
Core to the mission of Earth Expeditions is inquiry. Following the QUEST model of inquiry promoted by Project Dragonfly, the students split up into small groups to conduct their own scientific investigations. Some of the creative comparative questions they asked included looking at whether there was greater terrestrial invertebrate species richness close to or farther from the river and whether DEET or dirt worked better as a bug repellent. The students also led a group discussion on community-based conservation.
Each day, about an hour or so before sunset, we would split up into the three cruisers and head out to look for wildlife on a game drive through the Olkirimatian and Shompole conservancies. While driving through Amboseli National Park earlier in the week was amazing, seeing an abundance of diverse wildlife—from zebras to bat-eared foxes to giraffes— living here on Maasai land was even more compelling.
At one point, our guide, Patrick, stopped to cut small branches off of a Salvadora bush. Using a knife, he pared down one end of each twig and passed them out. We chewed the ends until the fibers separated, creating a brush and then brushed our teeth with it the way the Maasai do.
The most exciting moment had to be when my cruiser came upon a young lion laying in the middle of the dirt road just after sunset, and this happened not long after we had to stop to change a flat tire in the bush!
Maasai Boma Visit
One late afternoon, instead of heading out on a typical game drive, we were invited to visit with a Maasai family at their boma. When we arrived, the woman and her two young girls greeted us and showed us around.
As it neared sunset, we joined the herder as he brought his cattle home. In fact, he handed over the herding stick and a few of the students took over. Apparently, herding cattle is much harder than it looks! It was quite comical to watch the students try to keep the cows all moving in the right direction at the right pace.
Once the cattle were finally in their corral, the woman then showed us how she milks the cows. I can’t imagine what kind of trouble we’d have if she’d asked us to give that a try!
To be continued in a future blog post. Check back soon!
August 20, 2015 2 Comments
For more than 10 years, the Zoo has partnered with Miami University’s Project Dragonfly to lead graduate courses that take educators into the field to experience community-based conservation, participatory education and inquiry firsthand. This year, I had the fortunate opportunity to co-facilitate Earth Expeditions Kenya: People and Wildlife in Integrated Landscapes with Dave Jenike, the Zoo’s COO. We took 17 educators with us, including formal classroom teachers as well as informal educators from zoos and similar institutions. This is the second post in a series about our experience. Read the first post in this blog series here.
Day 4 (continued):
We arrived at the Lale’enok Resource Centre in the early afternoon. As soon as we stepped out of the vehicles, we were greeted by a welcoming committee. The Olkirimatian Women’s Group welcomed us with a beautiful song once we made our way into the shelter that would serve as our home base for meals and meetings throughout the week. The Operations Manager, Joel Ngongo, then introduced us to the Centre’s staff, researchers and community members that were there.
We received a quick orientation to camp, including very important safety information such as always be alert; there was a venomous snake spotted in camp earlier that day. Near the tents, they had set up temporary sand pit toilets and showers that basically consist of a bucket of water with a spout that you open and close. Water is a very precious resource here in the South Rift Valley, especially during the dry season, so we kept showers to a minimum and were sure to turn the water off when soaping up.
We returned to the shelter for a conversation with John Kamanga, Director of SORALO (South Rift Association of Land Owners) and Chairman of Olkirimatian Group Ranch. He shared with us the history and background of the Maasai culture and how the Lale’enok Resource Centre came to be. The Maasai have coexisted with wildlife as nomadic pastoralists that herd livestock for thousands of years. However, as times change and their culture evolves, the traditional Maasai way of maintaining that coexistence must also adapt. For example, there is growing pressure to subdivide the land and build fences, which would prevent wildlife as well as people and their livestock from migrating to find good grazing areas. Also, many of the young Maasai men who traditionally protect livestock from lions now go off to school, leaving their herds more vulnerable to attack. The community-based research and programs conducted out of Lale’enok aim to solve those issues and support both wildlife conservation and thriving livelihoods.
To that end, one thing the community has done is to designate three zones of land use on the group ranch. The first is a settlement and grazing zone occupied by people and livestock for much of the year, particularly during the wet season. The second is a buffer zone into which people and livestock migrate during the dry season. Lastly, there is the conservation zone that serves as a wildlife refuge and is only used for livestock grazing during drought conditions. Following this structure ensures sustainable land use and preservation of the savannah ecosystem.
We happened to arrive on the last day before the community would be allowed to migrate across the river into the conservation area in response to the current drought. It was a great opportunity for us to visit the conservation area and see it unoccupied; later in the week, we would see it occupied with people and livestock. It was also our first chance to game drive, get the lay of the land and look for wildlife. We split into three groups, each with a guide and headed out in the cruisers.
First, we visited an unoccupied boma, or homestead. Peter, an elder who is on the Conservation Committee, explained the set up of the boma and pointed out which corral was for cattle and which was for shoats (sheep and goats). We also peeked inside one of the manyattas, or huts, in which the people cook and sleep. The entire boma is surrounded by a fence of thorny branches.
Then we continued our game drive until after dark, spotting a diversity of wildlife from zebras and wildebeest to baboons and giraffes. It’s so amazing to think that the Maasai, their livestock and all this wildlife – including lions and other carnivores, even though we didn’t see them on this first game drive – share the same space. Sure, here in Cincinnati we share our backyards and cities with birds, squirrels and deer, but even so, we still think of it as “our” space. We’ve eliminated our large predators like wolves and cougars and are generally nervous when potentially dangerous animals like bears are spotted in the area. What could we learn from the Maasai about living with wildlife rather than separated from it?
It was a very full first day in Olkirimatian. Exhaustion and the much hotter, drier climate caught up with me after dinner so that I retired to my tent and fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow. We had five more days of adventure and exploration ahead of us.
To be continued in a future blog post. Check back soon!
August 5, 2015 1 Comment