Uganda be kidding me!

Ruth Lekupanae

I have been working with the giraffe research team in Kenya, the Twiga Walinzi (‘Giraffe Guards’ in Swahili) for over 3 years now, and getting to work alongside these dedicated conservationists is one of the best parts of my job.

So, I was ecstatic when I found out I would get to take a member of the team with me to assist Giraffe Conservation Foundation (GCF) with critically endangered Nubian giraffe surveys in Uganda - thanks to the continued collaborative partnership between SDZG and GCF, as well as the generosity of Save Giraffes Now.

With a population of only 3,000 individuals left, like reticulated giraffe (Giraffa reticulata), Nubian giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis) are in desperate need of increased conservation efforts and protection throughout their range. 

Ruth Lekupanae has been working on the conservation program since its inception in 2016, and she is the only female Twiga Walinzi member (for now!). Starting off as a ranger, her dedication to conservation and passion for wildlife and her community led her to becoming one of the project’s most important research assistants. To be able to take her on her first plane ride and have her join me in Uganda was an amazing and unforgettable experience for both of us! 

Rather than share my account of the trip and the breathtaking scenery of Uganda, it is much more inspiring to hear it directly from her. 

Ruth: “I am from Wamba, a town on the western side of the Matthew’s Mountain Range in Namunyak Community Conservancy. Having grown up in northern Kenya and only traveled to Nairobi once before, I was excited for this opportunity. I was most excited to see how other places are protecting their giraffe and wildlife – and also go on a plane!"

Our first stop in Uganda was Pian Upe Game Reserve to monitor 14 critically endangered Nubian giraffe that had been moved to the reserve last October from Murchison Falls National Park.

Ruth went on to describe the experience: It was shocking to learn that giraffe occurred in this area as late as the 1990s but had been completely eliminated from the area by hunting. After a few hours of tracking, we were able to find 3 of the new giraffe residents! This was my first time seeing a species of giraffe aside from reticulated giraffe and I was surprised to see they did not look all that much different – maybe just a bit lighter in color. It was so nice to see them feeling at peace in their new home. 

After visiting Pian Upe, the group traveled to Murchison Falls National Park, the former home of the 14 giraffe, where GCF has established a long-term monitoring and conservation program for Nubian giraffe. "Unlike Pian Upe, but similar to Namunyak, we saw large herds of giraffe here – some groups containing 50 individuals," Ruth said. "Unlike Namunyak though, at one of our encounters many of the individuals were lying down! In Namunyak it is very uncommon to see a full grown giraffe lie down but here we saw very many. It was a very funny thing to see!" 

Ruth explained: While it was encouraging to see so many giraffe, it was very sad to see many animals that were impacted by humans here – primarily in the form of snares - which are mainly used to catch small animals for meat but large animals can become tangled in the harsh wires as well. To see so many animals with snares was not good. We have seen snares in Namunyak but not enough that you can find animals with the wounds created by snares. Just as the Twiga Walinzi team does in Namunyak, we need to work with the communities in this area to tell people that the animals belong to us and it is our responsibility to protect them. We have really focused on working with our communities in Namunyak to reduce the poaching there, I think involving the communities for conservation very important and needed.

It was clear that Uganda was quite different than northern Kenya in many ways. "In northern Kenya water is very limited and we often have very bad droughts that last for months and create a lot of hardships for our families and livestock – Uganda does not seem to have this problem," Ruth noted. "There was so much water and the Nile River was unlike any river I have ever seen! This amount of water would be a welcomed sight in my home." 

"I very much appreciate the opportunity to see other places and learn more about conservation in other areas," she added. "It was really great to see that people in Uganda seem to feel the same way about their giraffe that we feel about ours, which makes me hopeful for conservation of giraffe in East Africa.”

Change of Plans

Doing fieldwork and conservation are always full of unexpected challenges, and you need to be able to adjust plans at the drop of the hat. We certainly didn’t think we would have such a challenge as a global pandemic, which hit while we were in the middle of our surveys. 

"Our time in Uganda was cut short due to mounting concerns over Covid-19," explained Jenna. "We were in a small camp in remote Pian Upe when the camp manager mentioned the U.S. might be imposing travel restrictions. Worried about getting ourselves home, we scrambled to find WIFI and cell service at the top of a hill. Trying to quickly organize travel for two people back from a remote game reserve amid growing pandemic concerns and closing airports was not something I thought I would ever be able to add to my resume!"

Jenna continued: On the day we had finally managed to organize flights out of Entebbe, Uganda, Kenya shut its borders to non-Kenyan citizens, meaning I would have to wave good-bye to Ruth from the customs checkpoint in Nairobi. All I could do at this point was cross my fingers that my flights would not be cancelled, hope that my allergies would not act up while I was going through customs, and hope that I had enough Clorox wipes and hand sanitizer to get me home. All in all, by the time I arrived back to San Diego I had taken 2 taxis, 4 planes, and had spent over 24 hours in various airports layovers alone – but I was home. And, as it turns out, I will stay home for the foreseeable future. 

"While I was relieved to be back home, as was Ruth, at one point we did both wonder if maybe staying in the remote Ugandan savannahs amongst the towering herds of giraffe might have been a better idea."