Episode 5: Giraffes on a Boat

A scientist attempts the impossible: moving eight giraffes off an island on a boat.

Asiwa, a Rothschild's (Nubian) giraffe who has become stranded on Longicharo Island, a rocky lava pinnacle, inside Lake Baringo in western Kenya, is moved off the flooded island by a barge December 2, 2020.
Photograph by Ami Vitale

It sounds like the start of a bad joke: How do you move eight giraffes—including a newborn calf—off an island in Africa’s Western Rift Valley? Answer: It isn’t easy, and it involves a boat, blindfolds, and earmuffs. We follow conservationist David O’Connor on an epic (and awkward) journey to save these endangered animals.

TRANSCRIPT

DAVID O’CONNOR (CONSERVATIONIST): It's kind of a bit Jurassic Park-ish. You can hear her rustling through the bushes, but you can't see her. And the brush was just so thick and, you know, with inch-long acacia thorns or, you know, the other kind of hook-shaped thorns. So it was a bit unpleasant on the skin walking through it.

AMY BRIGGS (HOST): We're on a rescue mission on an island in Lake Baringo, a massive freshwater lake in Kenya’s Rift Valley. A stranded castaway needs help because the waters of the lake? They’re rising. Fast.

BRIGGS: So, I bet you wonder what they’re looking for. So it’s not a person. They’re searching for one of the tallest animals on Earth, a giraffe. Her name’s Asiwa.

O'CONNOR: You can hear the rustling of Asiwa going in the bushes, the occasional warthog mad dash across that frightens the life out of everyone.

BRIGGS: That's David O’Connor, a conservationist who works for National Geographic. He’s also president of Save Giraffes Now It’s a nonprofit, and you can probably guess what they do: giraffe conservation.

O'CONNOR: We know there's a 19-foot, one and a half-ton animal out there, but we can't see her and we know she's on this sliver of an island, but we cannot see her. 

BRIGGS: It’s hard to imagine not being able to spot an animal that’s nearly 20 feet tall on a small island, but there’s this thick brush that’s growing all over, and so it makes it almost impossible to see her. 

And then there’s the fact that Asiwa does not want to be found.

O'CONNOR: You'd see her come into frame, as it were, out of the bushes. You know, this big… You’d see her head first, and then she'd stop and look at you, and, you know, you wouldn't do anything to keep her. And then she would then get freaked out, and run the other way. 

BRIGGS: The poor giraffe had really been through a lot lately. Giraffes aren't supposed to be living alone on islands.

O'CONNOR: So if you can imagine, she had been at a high stress level for a number of months, and that's not good for anybody, you know, and so I think she was very, I would say confused. She didn't know we were trying to help her.

BRIGGS: She isn't the only nervous one.

O'CONNOR: Like my heart's racing, I'm at this time, I'm just really worried that something bad is going to happen. 

BRIGGS: David’s worked with a lot of giraffes in his time, but this mission was really unusual. 

O'CONNOR: We're talking about the world's tallest animal, you know, they can stand 18, 19 feet tall, they're about two tons in weight. And, you know, how do you move the world's largest, you know, the giant of the savanna off an island across a mile of lake?

BRIGGS: I’m Amy Briggs, executive editor of National Geographic History magazine. And this is Overheard: a show where we eavesdrop on the wild conversations we have here at Nat Geo. And follow them to the edges of our big, weird, beautiful world.

This week, we’re on a rescue mission. We’re gonna learn how a giraffe got stranded on an island, and see a team of conservationists try to figure out how to rescue her.

More after the break.

BRIGGS: So if you’re curious about how a giraffe gets trapped on an island, you have to know a little bit about what life is like for giraffes today. It’s something David only realized when he started researching them in the wild 10 years ago.

O'CONNOR: I walked around a bush and I walked into this like wire that went around my neck, and I kept walking. And it was like, what is this? So I stood back. And basically what it was was this giant noose—looked like a hangman's noose—of like thinnish wire, but, you know, strong wire that, you know, was sort of hanging, waiting. And it turns out that it was a neck snare for a giraffe.

BRIGGS: In the last 30 years, giraffe populations have declined by 40% thanks to poaching and habitat destruction. 

O'CONNOR: A lot of conservation effort is rightfully so focused on elephant, rhino, lion. There was nobody focused on giraffe. And we know nothing about them. And, you know, they’re these iconic species that are, you know, the watchtowers of the savanna in a way. And they were just blinking out, and nobody knew why or nobody was paying attention. 

Giraffe, I think are so famous and so, dare I say, beloved by people even who have never been to Africa. You know, you see them on kids’ pajamas. You see them in kids’ books, you see them in cartoons, you see them used in advertising. And they're one of the last giants we have left on this Earth, you know, and if we lose them, we're losing just a huge part of who we are as people and what we are as a, you know, a sort of a biome of these incredible creatures.  

BRIGGS: There are different subspecies of giraffes, and Asiwa is what’s called the Rothschild’s or Nubian giraffe, and it’s one of the most endangered. Seventy years ago, they were wiped out from an ancestral home, the Western Rift Valley in Kenya. Today there are only about 800 of them left in Kenya. So the community living in the valley decides it wants its giraffes back.

So in 2011, this team of conservationists, they bring eight giraffes onto a peninsula in Lake Baringo, thinking that it’s surrounded by water on three sides, it’ll be easy to protect from poachers. The plan was that this herd would grow and have little giraffe babies, and then they’d repopulate the area.

O'CONNOR: It was a good plan. But unfortunately, the lake had other ideas.

BRIGGS: Over the next few years, Lake Baringo floods, and it turns the peninsula into an island. In 2020, the water levels are rising even more. And the eight giraffes—plus a newborn calf—they’re trapped on this shrinking island.

And this island was so small that crocodiles could easily walk across it. Worse yet, the giraffes were running out of food. Even though the community brought extra food to them, the giraffes became underweight.

So the waters keep rising. And this herd, which is the great hope for this kind of giraffe, they’re in serious danger.

O'CONNOR: I thought they were done for. To be honest, I just thought that these giraffe would just slowly blink out one by one.

BRIGGS: Just when you think it can’t get any worse, it gets worse. Asiwa, the giraffe we met earlier, became separated from the herd when the lake started rising. Floodwaters surrounded the strip of land she was on, turning it into its own little island, and trapping her on it.

If they wanted to save Asiwa and the other giraffes, they'd have to act fast. And Asiwa was in the most danger, so they were gonna start with her.

O'CONNOR: We couldn't have waited I think another week even.

BRIGGS: But how are they gonna do it?

BRIGGS: Giraffes don’t swim, so a dip into the lake wouldn’t work. But what about a boat?

O'CONNOR: I didn't really think it was all that possible until I saw the “GiRaft.” And then I was like, OK, I think I think actually this may work.

BRIGGS: So that's G.I.R.A.F.T.? GiRaft?

O’CONNOR: Yes. Yeah, that's our go-to nickname. 

BRIGGS: The team secured some funding to help the giraffes. And that paid for the creation of the “GiRaft.” So it’s this barge, and to make it, they had to come up with this MacGyverque plan. They welded together metal oil barrels. And on top of them, they put a flat platform. And on top of that, they put a layer of compacted earth. The local community designed it specifically for the giraffes so it would be as stable as possible with as little wobbling as possible. 

O'CONNOR: And then when I stepped on, it was absolutely solid. It didn't move.

BRIGGS: So the GiRaft is ready… How do you get the giraffe on it? First, they tried to lure Asiwa with food.

O'CONNOR: These acacia seed pods that are kind of like crack for giraffe, they go bananas for them. 

BRIGGS: But Asiwa didn't go for it. She was too skittish. 

O'CONNOR: No way Jose. 

BRIGGS: That meant they had to move onto plan B: sedation.

O'CONNOR: We really don't want to dart giraffe. We only do it when it's sort of absolutely necessary, or the benefits outweigh the potential risks.

BRIGGS: When the acacia pods are out of season. 

O'CONNOR: Exactly. When you've got no crack to deal, you got to persuade them in other ways. 

BRIGGS: With most animals, sedation is simple. But David says giraffes are complicated.

O'CONNOR: If you think of, say, an elephant or rhino or a lion, you know, when you see the wildlife vets, they put the tranquilizer in their dart gun and poop and they fall over asleep. And they'll stay asleep and you can move them asleep, and they're perfectly fine and happy and safe asleep. Giraffe are not like that. They're so precisely engineered, you know, kind of like a Swiss clock or something.

BRIGGS: Giraffes are designed to be vertical. A giraffe heart is designed to pump blood up that neck. If they go unconscious and horizontal, their blood pressure spikes, and it’s really dangerous for them.

O'CONNOR: And then when they are on the ground, they're very much in danger of either having a massive hemorrhage or basically the brain exploding because they've lost all that blood pressure.

BRIGGS: That meant a vet with the Kenya Wildlife Service needed to dart her and give her the antidote immediately. Then David and his team had to quickly attach ropes to her so that they could guide the woozy giraffe onto the barge.

ARTHUR MUNEZA (EXPLORER): And once the drug actually takes effect, you see some of them starting to look up and they start to prance around, like, you can see that they are lightheaded.

BRIGGS: That’s Arthur Muneza. He’s a National Geographic Explorer. He’s from Kenya. And he’s studied giraffes in East Africa for seven years. 

So if you think that brain explosion and low blood pressure are problems, he and David told us about how much more can go wrong.

MUNEZA: And so if the animal is not brought down immediately, they can—so there are many different scenarios that can happen. There's a long list. So depending on where you are, it can run into the river. That has happened…

O'CONNOR: … they fall over and they fall over in a bad area with rocks and they bang their head or something or, you know, or somehow tweak or…

MUNEZA: It can run and, you know, fall in a bush, that has happened.

O'CONNOR: …break their leg somehow and or as I say, when you're guiding them with the ropes…

MUNEZA: It can fall in rocks. 

O'CONNOR: …they somehow go off the side of the barge or, you know, go into the water, which we really don't want…

O'CONNOR: It sounded absolutely ridiculous, and a lot of effort and money and expense and time just to rescue eight giraffe. But at the same time, these eight giraffe represent one percent of the entire Kenyan population of Rothschild's giraffes. So they're important. 

BRIGGS: So how did the sedation go with the first female giraffe? 

O'CONNOR: Well, as with so many things in wildlife, it didn't necessarily go to plan. You know, sometimes with conservation, you can, you know, you have the best plans and try to do everything. But then sometimes it turns out like the Keystone Cops.

BRIGGS: So, back to our rescue mission. The team is creeping into the brush to look for Asiwa.

BRIGGS: So when you were preparing to transport Asiwa, how did you feel? Were you nervous? Were you excited? 

O'CONNOR: I was scared to death. I was really nervous. In case something went wrong, because I think I knew that the community was behind it, and, you know, just did not want to let them down. There were some local press that had gotten wind of the move, from Nairobi. And so they were there.

BRIGGS: None of the humans could keep up with a giraffe on their own, so they split up. 

O'CONNOR: And everyone's at this stage really quiet because you're trying to get a vet to shoot a dart through really thick brush.

BRIGGS: And then they spot her, and then the vet shoots the dart.

O'CONNOR: You can hear like a (sound) you know, when the dart is shot. Once the dart went in, everyone was sort of quiet and it was that sort of period… Sometimes you see it in war movies, like the period before the attack where everyone's kind of quiet and ready and waiting. 

BRIGGS: When some giraffes are sedated, they act a little dazed, they maybe stand around for a few minutes, kind of wobbly and confused, and they just sort of pass out. But some others...

O'CONNOR: Some of them run. They kind of put their head back and look at the sky and just run. 

BRIGGS: So it turns out, Asiwa is a runner.

O'CONNOR: And then suddenly there was like this loud crash of bushes. And you could tell that there was something big running, but you couldn't see anything and you couldn't even see—I couldn't see my colleagues because the bush was so dense. And occasionally you hear people shouting, you know, in Swahili or English.

BRIGGS: Asiwa’s tearing through the brush. David’s running after her.

O'CONNOR: And the adrenaline’s pumping, and you're just trying to run and breathe and stay balanced and keep an eye on the giraffe and understand where everyone else is. 

O'CONNOR: It's rocky, it's muddy, there's thorns, and you can't really see where you're going. But you're trying to go as fast as you can. But it's hot. At the time, I'd longer hair because it was COVID. I hadn't gotten a cut in ages. And so the hair’s being ripped out of my head by the thorns.

BRIGGS: Asiwa is full of sedatives. If she passes out and they can’t find her, they won’t be able to give her the antidote in time.

O'CONNOR: I didn't want to lose sight of her because that's the most dangerous thing. If she goes down, and you don't know where she is. There is a chance that if you lose that giraffe, your eyes lose it, then, you know, she could die, basically. 

David gets lucky, and he glimpses Asiwa through the brush.

O'CONNOR: And she went to the entire—very most furthest point possible on the island from the barge. And as if she was kind of giving us, like, thumbing your nose at us, just like, I'm not going to make this easy for you.

BRIGGS: And she’s dangerously close to the water. So as David’s approaching her, she gets kind of wobbly… And then she falls over. 

O'CONNOR: And she literally went down about a foot from the water. 

BRIGGS: David cautiously approaches her. A scared, confused giraffe can be really dangerous.

O'CONNOR: And you know, a giraffe can kill you when they kick you.

BRIGGS: He’s had his ribs cracked that way before.

So David sits down on her neck.

O'CONNOR: So her neck is underneath me, like I'm sitting on a log.

BRIGGS: And the vet comes in behind him.

O'CONNOR: And he actually, I remember, pushed me just like this. So that he could get the vein and put the reversal drug in. 

BRIGGS: So once they get the drug in, Asiwa is safe for now.

O'CONNOR: That was the first moment of calm, because at that point, you're kind of like, OK, we have a long way to go, but at least we're now sort of more in control of what will happen.

BRIGGS: They’ve got the drugs in. They’ve got the antidote in. But now they gotta get Asiwa ready to walk. And that’s more involved than you think. They only have a few minutes to get Asiwa ready before she gets up.

O'CONNOR: I don't know if you watch Formula One or NASCAR, you know, the pit crew that goes in and does everything on the car quickly. Kind of like that. 

BRIGGS: While Asiwa is still kind of out of it, they have to tie ropes around her, they have to cover her eyes with a blindfold, and they have to cover her ears with earmuffs.

O'CONNOR: What we use for earmuffs, I'm trying to make them sound fancy, but they're basically socks that we stuff in the giraffe's ear to try to, you know, keep them calm, you know, muffle out sounds. And then the blindfold is sort of like maybe a potato sack type texture. So they can kind of see through it, you know, but it's still helping keep them calm.

BRIGGS: Asiwa wakes up. The group starts to grabs the ropes and pull her to her feet, sort of like a game of tug of war. She stands. Then the team starts walking with her, guiding her through the thick brush. 

BRIGGS: How do you practice that maneuver? Because obviously, you don’t do it for your first time on a giraffe.

O'CONNOR: Yeah, you don't practice, you know, you. Well, you know, I take that back. The actual—what we do do is we practice walking the giraffe. So we did actually practice the day before with the team. I was a giraffe one of the time, another guy was a giraffe. And time we all had ropes on us and we were pretending to be the giraffe and, you know, there’s ropes coming off us. There's five guys on each rope trying to guide you, you know, and you're trying to pretend to fight like a giraffe, like not cooperating.  

BRIGGS: They walk her onto the raft… Tow it across the lake with a motorboat. And finally reach the mainland. Asiwa walks off the raft... and mission accomplished.

O'CONNOR: You know, the incredible thing for me was not only that, that was the first time that those giraffe, any giraffe, had set foot in the Western Rift Valley for over 70 years. But the reaction of the community to that first giraffe, because they were there kind of waiting where we were offloading her, was something I will never forget. 

BRIGGS: What do they do? 

O'CONNOR: It was an immediate eruption of cheers and clapping and just this sense, mixed sense of relief, because they were all so worried that something would happen to Asiwa. And they didn't know if this was going to work, really, you know, and there's so many things could have gone sideways.

BRIGGS: During 2020 and 2021, the GiRaft made several return trips to rescue the rest of Asiwa’s herd from the larger island. As of now, all of them are on the mainland and thriving.

O'CONNOR: You would see nearly overnight they looked—basically their body condition improved, they're fatter. They're happier, their coat’s healthier. Their tick load is lower. 

BRIGGS: In case you’re worried, the baby giraffe is doing fine. 

O'CONNOR: I have to say, and of course, I'm biased, they're extremely cute. But what's incredible is even from the first moment they're born, they're looking you right in the eye because they come out at six feet tall. And they're so curious, so they're extremely curious and they have these big, massive eyes and these big eyelashes and this tongue that comes out and they're sniffing and licking things.

BRIGGS: And David thinks it’s the first calf of many. 

O'CONNOR: And then slowly over time, over the next two, three, four decades working with the communities, the giraffe will slowly repopulate naturally the entire Western Rift Valley and connect to their cousins in Uganda. I mean, that's the dream. But to have this first step be successful, it's just—we're over the moon.

BRIGGS: So, if the dream is achieved, how long do you think that'll take?

O'CONNOR: Overall, I would say it's going to be not less than 20 years. Unless someone gives us millions and millions of dollars, then we can do it in a week. 

BRIGGS: So if anybody listening out there has millions and millions of dollars, and would like the giraffes from Uganda to meet the Rothschild giraffes, look in our show notes. You can find out who to give your money to.

O'CONNOR: Exactly.

BRIGGS: But ultimately, it will take more than just David to save Africa’s giraffes.

MUNEZA: The community gave up land to have these animals brought in.

BRIGGS: For people who grew up in Africa around giraffes, these animals are a really important part of their identity.

MUNEZA: I had seen them in the wild, I really loved them as a kid.

BRIGGS: In the Western Rift Valley, the local Pokot, Njemps, and Masai communities spearheaded this mission.

MUNEZA: But we are actually close partners with the Twiga Walinz. The Twiga Walinz is basically Swahili for “giraffe gods.” And these people are training other community members in Ruko to basically collect data on giraffes and protect them. We are losing these populations at a fast rate. We really need to come together and, you know, stick our necks out for giraffes. 

BRIGGS: I saw what you did there. That's nice. 

MUNEZA: Thank you. 

BRIGGS: The local community has plans for the GiRaft too.

O'CONNOR: And they were even telling me about the idea they had for the GiRaft. They're saying, Dave, you know what we're going to do? I think what we're going to do is convert this now into a floating bar-restaurant. And, you know, when the tourists come, we can take them for an evening sundowner or, you know, barge ride around the lake, and then they'll come back to the lodge.

BRIGGS: They need to paint the outside with a giraffe print pattern.

O'CONNOR: Yes. Yes. 

BRIGGS: That would be fabulous. 

O'CONNOR: Yeah. So hopefully in 20 years, when we do reconnect the giraffe, we can all celebrate on the barge. 

BRIGGS: Do you have a spare million dollars and want to stage a giraffe family reunion? Or perhaps just want to see what David’s up to these days? Check out David O’Connor’s organization, Save Giraffes Now.

If you’re curious what the GiRaft looked like, subscribers can see it in the May 2021 issue of the magazine.

To learn know more about these giants, we’ve got an article for you about the fight against giraffes’ silent extinction. 

That’s all in the show notes, right there in your podcast app. 

And while you’re there, be sure to rate and review us. It really helps other listeners find us.

CREDITS

Overheard at National Geographic is produced by Ilana Strauss, Brian Gutierrez, Laura Sim, Jacob Pinter, and Carla Wills.

Our senior editor is Eli Chen. 

Our executive producer of audio is Davar Ardalan.

Our fact-checkers are Julie Beer and Robin Palmer. 

Hansdale Hsu sound-designed this episode and composed our theme music

Special thanks to Tyler Schiffman, who recorded this adventure.

This podcast is a production of National Geographic Partners. 

The National Geographic Society, committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world, funds the work of National Geographic Explorer Arthur Muneza.

Whitney Johnson is the director of visuals and immersive experiences. 

Susan Goldberg is National Geographic’s editorial director. 

And I’m your host, Amy Briggs. Thanks for listening.

SHOW NOTES

Want more?

To learn more about David O’Connor’s conservation work, check out his organization, Save Giraffes Now

You can also read up on how scientists are trying to prevent giraffes from going extinct

Subscribers can also see what the “giraft” looked like and read more about the giraffe rescue from Lake Baringo. 

If you like what you hear and want to support more content like this, please consider a National Geographic subscription. Go to natgeo.com/explore to subscribe today.