Help Wanted: Citizen Scientists to Help Giraffes
Giraffes are icons of Africa, unique, magnificent, and much loved worldwide. They are also integral to their ecosystems, opening habitat for other wildlife and livestock and dispersing seeds for new plant growth. Yet when compared to other African species, surprisingly not much is known about giraffes and how they live in their native habitat. One thing that is clear is that giraffes are in trouble. Their populations have declined across Africa, leading the IUCN Red List in December 2016 to officially list giraffes as “Vulnerable” to extinction.
Studying the “Towers of the Savanna”
In northern Kenya, San Diego Zoo Global researchers are working with the Twiga Walinzi (which means “Giraffe Guards” in Swahili), who are conducting field research to study reticulated giraffes Giraffa camelopardalis reticulata. Current estimates show that the population of this subspecies has declined by over 70 percent in the past 20 years—from 36,000 to less than 9,000 today. The main drivers behind the decline appear to be habitat loss and fragmentation, land degradation, and poaching.
Watching and Learning
One goal of this field research is to learn more about giraffes in their habitat. How many are living in the field sites being studied? How do they travel, interact with one another and other wildlife, and use the resources in their habitat? One way to find out is with the help of motion-activated trail cameras, which automatically take photos of animals as they pass by. The Twiga Walinzi has set up 100 of these cameras at two sites in northern Kenya: the 56,000-acre Loisaba Conservancy, and the 800,000-acre Namunyak Community Conservancy. Anything that moves activates the camera, so the photos also help track other animals as well as giraffes, to understand what species share the habitat. What the researchers learn will help to better understand giraffe ecology and to inform conservation efforts on the ground.
As the project continues, there are tens of thousands of trail camera photos to sort through—but only a few people to do it. It can take a long time for a small team to process all the images and gather the information, slowing down progress on the research. That’s where volunteer citizen scientists come in. Thanks to an innovative Internet platform called Zooniverse, thousands of people around the world can log in, using any device with Internet access, to assist professional researchers with a variety of projects. No specialized training or equipment is required, and volunteers of many different ages can participate from the comfort of their own sofa. San Diego Zoo Global’s project is called Wildwatch Kenya, and it is set up for volunteers to view the photos taken by trail cameras in the field sites in Kenya, and identify and count the wildlife in them.
A Big Help that Is Easy and Fun
The Wildwatch Kenya website, found at wildwatchkenya.org, provides users with easy directions of what to do and how to do it, and there are additional photos, text descriptions, and guides to help participants identify what species they are seeing—including the giraffes but also animals like antelope, cats, small mammals, jackals, monkeys, and some birds. There is also additional information about each of the species to learn more about them. Best of all, the volunteer citizen scientists are making an important and meaningful contribution to the research. With San Diego Zoo’s Wildwatch Kenya, they are helping to gather the information needed to create conservation strategies to save reticulated giraffes, a first step in providing a sustainable future for the much-loved “towers of the savanna.”
To explore or join this exciting citizen-science project, go to wildwatchkenya.org.