San Diego, California - World Giraffe Day (June 21, 2019), San Diego Zoo Global’s Wildwatch Kenya citizen science project is celebrating its second anniversary—and a monumental conservation achievement. Researchers announced that the project’s more than 15,000 online volunteers have identified and retired over 1 million individual images from motion-activated trail cameras in Kenya—completing almost 10 years’ worth of giraffe conservation work. This has provided researchers with crucial data to help identify the locations where giraffes travel, allowing them to update inaccurate range maps for the first time since the organization started the reticulated giraffe conservation and research program.
The new maps—created by the San Diego Zoo Global team in collaboration with several partners around the world—will be published later this year. Researchers said the updated information will deliver major assistance in giraffe conservation efforts, including helping local agencies develop more conservation-minded measures for basic infrastructure projects in northern Kenya.
“The region is in need of new highways and roads,” said Jenna Stacy-Dawes, research coordinator at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. “By working together with local agencies and other conservation organizations, we can utilize this data, in combination with other information we are collecting, to help reduce the impacts development will have on giraffe populations.”
The Wildwatch Kenya website was created using Zooniverse's free Project Builder tool. Anyone wishing to participate can do so by visiting wildwatchkenya.org on their home computer or smartphone. Volunteers are asked to identify what is pictured in trail photos—normally only seen by conservationists—by choosing from an animal list or indicating that no animal is pictured. Each image is viewed by multiple volunteers, to ensure that photos that are not needed are filtered out.
The crowdsourcing project is part of an overall effort by scientists to gather more information on giraffes. In 2015, science teams estimated a little under 100,000 giraffes left in their native habitats—a decrease of more than 40 percent over the last 20 years. These numbers have alarmed conservationists, leading the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to change giraffes’ overall status to Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, with some subspecies being listed as Endangered or Critically Endangered. It is believed that the startling downward trend is primarily due to habitat loss, habitat fragmentation, and poaching in certain regions. In fact, a few giraffe populations have decreased so rapidly, they are now extinct in seven African nations.
San Diego Zoo Global has partnered with the Giraffe Conservation Foundation, the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and the Ivan Carter Wildlife Conservation Alliance on large-scale conservation projects with the aim to slow and eventually stop the continued decline of populations worldwide. Efforts include the Twiga Tracker Initiative—the largest wildlife collaring initiative in Africa—which uses solar-powered GPS units to track giraffe movements throughout the continent. Twiga Tracker aims to collar a total of 250 over the next few years and use the resulting data to inform policymakers and wildlife agencies in developing sound conservation strategies—including forming better tactics for managing land and livestock and enhancing anti-poaching efforts. In addition, San Diego Zoo Global and the Giraffe Conservation Foundation are working to develop GiraffeSpotter, an online artificial intelligence (AI) software that will identify individual giraffes by their coat patterns. This intuitive program is being developed by the nonprofit Wild Me, and is one of the new projects being supported by funds raised for giraffe conservation.
“Despite the grim status of giraffes overall, we are seeing signs of hope with a few giraffe populations—leading us to believe our efforts are indeed working,” said David O’Connor, researcher at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. “Through bold conservation projects and partnerships, we hope to continue our work of supporting wildlife agencies, community conservancies, and the people that coexist with giraffes, as we all fight to stop the silent extinction of this majestic species.”
As an international nonprofit organization, San Diego Zoo Global works to fight extinction through conservation efforts for plants and animals worldwide. With a history of leadership in species recovery and animal care, San Diego Zoo Global works with partners in science-based field programs on six continents, and maintains sanctuaries and public education facilities in many places. Inspiring passion for nature is critical to saving species, and San Diego Zoo Global’s outreach efforts share the wonder of wildlife with millions of people every year. Current major conservation initiatives include fighting wildlife trafficking and the impacts of climate change on wildlife species; broad-spectrum species and habitat protection efforts in Kenya, in Peru and on islands worldwide; preventing extinction in our own backyard; and expanding efforts to bank critical genetic resources and apply them to the conservation of critically endangered species. To learn more, visit sandiegozooglobal.org.