Conservation breeding in the Giraffe Center Nairobi

The Rothschild Giraffe is one of the most endangered giraffe subspecies, mainly due to habitat loss. The Giraffe Centre Nairobi is raising public awereness about this endangered species and is well known for successful conservation breeding and environmental education.
Giraffe Centre Nairobi - Rothschild's giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis rothschildi)- Rothschild Giraffe

Kenya, Nairobi. At the Giraffe Center on the edge of Nairobi, you quickly make new friends. One or the other might even get a kiss from Daisy IV, Betty or one of the other ten giraffes that grow up here or are kept for the breeding of the endangered Rothschild giraffes. Here you get to know our largest land animals and learn more about their endangerment.

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Table of Contents

„Xirafah“ – the Lovely

Giraffes are a cross between a camel and a leopard. At least that was the impression when Julius Caesar brought the first giraffe to Europe in 46 BC. The Romans therefore named the animal Cameleopardalis – “camel-leopard”. It was only later that giraffes were recognized as a separate animal genus and given a new name: “xirafah” or “zarāfa” –  which is Arabic for “the lovely one” or “the one that runs fast.”

Portrait of a Massai-Giraffe (Giraffa tippelskirchi) in the Masai Mara, Kenya
Since my visit to the Giraffe Center, I can see why the Arabs gave these animals the name "the lovely one".

With her long pointed tongue, Betty takes the pellet from my fingers. It feels rough. Carefully she rolls the treat in with her tongue and it disappears. I fish the next pellet out of the food bowl and hold it out to Betty. And then another. And another. After my bowl is empty, Betty still hasn’t had enough. Expectantly, she moves on to the next visitor and sticks her tongue out at him, causing quite a few people to be amazed: a giraffe’s tongue can be up to 50 centimeters long.

Feeding giraffes in the Giraffe Centre Nairobi

But “the lovely one” with the long tongue is threatened with extinction. Since 2016, it has been on the Red List of the World Conservation Organization IUCN. The total population of Rothschild Giraffes is presently estimated at only about 1,671 animals (IUCN, 2016).

Quick Facts about Rothschild Giraffes​

  • Size: bulls over 5 meters, cows about 4 meters. At birth, a calf is about 1.8 meters tall
  • Weight: Bulls up to 1,135 kilograms; at birth about 50 kilograms
  • Life expectancy: up to 35 years in captivity; males in the wild about 22 years and females about 28 years
  • Reproduction: From the age of four to five years
  • Gestation period: 14 to 15 months; a single calf
  • Speed: Up to 50 kilometers per hour
  • Habitat: woodland/savanna in Kenya and Uganda
  • Threats: Poaching, habitat loss and fragmentation
  • Enemies: (mainly for young) hyenas, lions, leopards, wild dogs and crocodiles
  • Protection status: categorized by the IUCN Red List as endangered since 2010
  • Total population: increased from 1,330 animals in the 1960s to 1,671 in 2016

Giraffe Centre Nairobi –  Conservation Breeding and Environmental Education

The Beginnings

It all began in the early 1970s at Soy Ranch in Western Kenya. Betty Leslie-Melville and her husband Jock discovered 130 Rothschild Giraffes on the about 7300 hectare farm. Due to habitat loss, this giraffe subspecies was endangered: the Soy Ranch animals were even the last population in Western Kenya. But the Soy Ranch land was to be subdivided and subsequently transferred to landless citizens. There would have been no more place for the giraffes thereafter.

Giraffe Centre Nairobi - Rothschild's giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis rothschildi)- Rothschild Giraffe
Young Rothschild Giraffes (Giraffa camelopardalis rothschildi), Giraffe Centre Nairobi.

The Leslie-Melvilles brought finally two young giraffes to their home in Langata, a suburb of Nairobi. Here they raised calves Daisy and Marlon and have been running a giraffe breeding program ever since. In 1979, the couple founded the Giraffe Centre and a year later, the African Fund for Endangered Wildlife Kenya Ltd (AFEW). With the help of donations, AFEW was able to move twenty-six more giraffes from the Soy Ranch to safe habitats. In 1985, seven more animals were relocated to eastern Kenya.

The giraffes in Langata grew and the Giraffe Center also expanded. The AFEW, which operates the Giraffe Centre, consequently purchased sixty hectares of land around the Langata property in 1983. In the same year, the Giraffe Center opened its doors to visitors.

Giraffe Centre Nairobi - Rothschild's giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis rothschildi)- Rothschild Giraffe
A visit in the Giraffe Centre is a highlight for locals as well as for tourists

There are presently twelve giraffes on the premises. Five are adult females, six are cubs between the ages of one month and two years. The only rooster in the basket is called Edu. He is nine years old and lives in a separate enclosure.

Between the age of two to three years the giraffe calves become independent and they are released into protected areas. So far, forty animals had been released.

Changing Mindsets by Environmental Education

For decades, the Leslie-Melvilles (as well as Daisy and Marlon) have raised public awareness about the endangered Rothschild Giraffes. Today, the centre is well-known for environmental education. Every year, it teaches over 50,000 Kenyan school children and it opens the eyes and hearts of guests from all over the world.

Giraffe Centre Nairobi - Rothschild's giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis rothschildi)- Rothschild Giraffe
The giraffes carefully pick up the treats offered by the visitors

But it is about more than raising Rothschild Giraffes. The children learn also conservation themes such as sustainable development, forest conservation, wetlands protection and waste management. Together with the knowledge they have gained and the intensive encounters with the giraffes, they become ambassadors for nature.

Visit the Giraffe Centre​

The Giraffe Centre is located in Langata, about 20 kilometers from the center of Nairobi. It is open daily from 9 am to 5 pm, including weekends and holidays. There is an elevated feeding platform, a small exhibition with information panels, a café as well as a gift store.

Up for breakfast with giraffes?

From the feeding platform, you can see between the trees the former home of the Leslie-Melvilles. The house was built in 1932 in the style of a Scottish hunting lodge. Today it is an exclusive small hotel – the “Giraffe Manor”. Giraffes are also welcome guests here. Just in time for breakfast, they stick their necks through the windows. They have quickly learned that there are treats here.

Giraffe Manson, Nairobi
The exclusive Hotel "Giraffe Manson" is located right next to the Giraffe Centre Nairobi

The Rothschild Giraffe

The Rothschild Giraffe was named after the zoologist Lord Walter Rothschild. It is also known as the Baringo Giraffe or the Ugandan Giraffe. In the early 20th century, when the Rothschild Giraffe was first described, they were common in Kenya, Uganda and Sudan. Today, the Rothschild Giraffe is one of the most endangered subspecies. In the wild, it can only be seen in a few places. These include Lake Nakuru and Samburu National Park in Kenya, and Murchison Falls National Park in northern Uganda.

The Rothschild Giraffe is easily distinguished from other giraffes. The most obvious difference is the coloration of the fur. It is paler and the orange-brown rosettes are less sharply serrated. The lower legs have no pattern. It appears as if the giraffe is wearing white stockings.

Patterns of a Rotschild Giraffe
Patterns of a Rotschild Giraffe

Another characteristic that distinguishes it is the number of horns – the so-called ossicones. The Rothschild Giraffe is the only one that has five ossicones. Two of these are the larger ones common to all giraffes. The third, smaller ossicon is in the middle of the forehead, and two more are behind the ears. Among males, the two largest horns are mostly shaved bald due to fighting over females. Female giraffes, on the other hand, wear dainty puffs on their horns.

Muller, Z., Bercovitch, F., Brand, R., Brown, D., Brown, M., Bolger, D., Carter, K., Deacon, F., Doherty, J.B., Fennessy, J., Fennessy, S., Hussein, A.A., Lee, D., Marais, A., Strauss, M., Tutchings, A. & Wube, T. 2018. Giraffa camelopardalis (amended version of 2016 assessment). The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2018: e.T9194A136266699. https://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2016-3.RLTS.T9194A136266699.en. Downloaded on 10 January 2021.

Giraffe Conservation Foundation. Annual Report 2019/20. https://giraffeconservation.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/GCF_AR_2019-20.pdf Downloaded on 10 January 2021.

Webside Giraffe Centre Nairobi. https://www.giraffecentre.org/ Downloaded on 10 January 2021.

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