Standing tall, beautifully

by Stephen Kafeero for The Independent

 Rothschild giraffes
Marasa Safaris shows off Murchison Falls National Park’s unknown and endangered treasure; the world’s largest population of rare Rothschild giraffes

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the ferry crossing station to Paraa Safari Lodge,” announces Musa, our driver. We have just arrived at Paraa landing site on the edge of the mighty River Nile in the Murchison Falls National Park, in north western Uganda.

Our driver sounds relieved after the exciting and excruciating 400km safari van drive from Kampala city through Masindi and the unpredictable park.

 

It is 1.45 pm and we are an hour 15 minutes late for the ferry. Several other late comers are lounging around, their vehicles scattered all over the landing site.

 

“The people at Paraa will be wondering what happened to us,” says Corne Schalkwyk, the head of Marketing and Sales at Marasa Africa, who had arranged our tour, as he folds the sleeves of his white shirt, pulls up his sunglasses and gets his Canon camera to join others photographing such birds like kingfishers and honey bee eaters as we wait for the ferry.

Fortunately, out hosts sent a boat to pick us for the short crossing and in no time we are in Paraa, freshening up and sipping cold fresh juice before heading into a very late lunch at 3pm.

Crispus Mwamidi, the general manager in his well-pressed Khaki pants and white shirt came to usher us to the cafeteria, which still had a sizable noisy crowd of guests. Waitresses skim our tables piled with glasses of drinks. I settle for French fries, lamb, and a glass of orange crush. Soon our party of 10 was off again; for an evening game drive.

Marvel of nature

Barely five minutes’ from Paraa Safari lodge and already the tall creatures with long slender necks that we had driven out to see were visible in the distance. They are the tall blonde rare Rothschild giraffes.

An endangered species, only about 1,050 of them are estimated by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to still survive in their natural habitat; the shrub and acacia thorn bushes of Kenya and Uganda.

As we approach, I am struck by their catwalk gait, a graceful sway from side to side because, like camels, giraffes move both feet on one side of the body simultaneously as they move.

Their large bodies have big dark, rectangular blotches set irregularly against a cream background and lower legs noticeably white and not patterned. When mature, a Rothschild giraffe can grow to about 18 feet tall; about as tall as a two-storied building.

They have gentle eyes, with beautiful eyelashes that captivate anybody’s attention. They are generally peaceful animals and only become aggressive when protecting their territory.

On each Rothschild head are five horns; called ossicones that look like extra pointed ears. Two of the horns point up, two out at the back as lamps, and one in front as a ridge. Some Rothschild giraffes become darker as they grow older although one I could see an obviously young male with the same dark features.

They are a marvel to watch as they feed on their favourite food; the thorny acacia, with their extra-long tongues; some as long as the forearm of an average side adult person. The tongue goes around the stem of the acacia, pulls it back and strips it of all leaves in one deft sweep.

Apparently, the giraffes have developed mechanisms to protect themselves against the thorns of acacia. Their saliva is thick like an oil lubricant and protects their tongue. Instead of thorns penetrating the tongue, they just slide off.

But in another marvel of the wild; the trees too have also devised a survival strategy. As soon as the tree is attacked, it sends out a warning by producing a chemical that spreads quickly all over the tree, making their leaves taste bad.

As a result the giraffe eats only a little of the tree before it starts tasting bad. To beat this defense, the giraffes have an ingenious maneuver; it involves approaching the tree from the opposite direction of the wind which makes the process of the trees warning each other difficult.

Such are the things one learns in the Murchison Falls National Park, the biggest game reserve in Uganda, which is home to over 750 of the world’s remaining Rothschilds.

They live in their natural range and until now, little has been known about this group of mega herbivores. But the Giraffe Conservation Foundation (GCF), a team of volunteers committed to the conservation of the giraffe species, are determined to change that.

Founded four years ago, this non-profit NGO is led by conservation scientist Dr Julian Fennessy; a Namibia-based Australian. He is the co-chair of the IUCN’s SSC Giraffe and Okapi Specialist Group.

Others on the team are fellow GCF trustees and researchers Andy Tutchings, a Germany-based Brit and Fellow of the Royal Geographic Society, and Stephanie Fennessy, a Namibia-based German, both also members of the GOSG.

The group is working with two government of Uganda entities; the Ugandan Wildlife Authority (UWA) and the Wildlife Education Centre (UWEC), and Marasa Africa; a private safari company.

Their mission is to create an information database on Rothschild’s giraffe in the wild and, says Dr Fennessy, this will help develop and implement effective conservation strategies.

Their project is intended to provide the first scientific review of the Rothschild’s ecology, behavior and habitat requirements for meaningful conservation inititiatives. These include the provision of technical support, funding, and results data sharing.

Dr Fennessy is anxious that the Rothschilds do not suffer the same fate as the giraffes of Angola in southern Africa that were either eaten or killed into extinction during the civil war that ravaged the country.  “We are carrying out the research because we consider the Rothschild an endangered sub species,” he says.

After a quiet night, disturbed only by the grunts of hippos grazing on the lawns outside, it was morning and time for a cruise on the Nile on the Paraa Voyager, a new executive boat that offers excellent views.

One thing that you are guaranteed to see in plenty on this ride hippos, locally call `raa’. Together with the “pa’” which means the place; they give Paraa its name which means “place of hippos”.

Our boat captain and guide, Amon Assimwe, tells us hippos sleep in the water during day and graze on land at night, travelling over 20kms to find food sometimes. They live in schools of over 40, controlled by one male who welcomes only females and submissive males.

We also see plenty of crocodiles and various species of birds until the ride takes to the point where the Victoria Nile pushes its way through a narrow seven-meter gap, before taking a beautiful 43-metre deep fall to continue its journey to Lake Albert.

Best views in the world

By the time we return to the lodge, it is time to head out again; this time to see Chobe Safari Lodge, another Marasa holding about 95 kms away. Like Paraaa, the Chobe lodge was designed facing the pool amidst lush lawns and a health club that was voted by CNNGo as the 5th among the gyms with the most amazing views in the world.

Unfortunately, after a night at Chobe, it was time to head back to Kampala and its chaos. But the memories are forever.

Chobe, like most of the Murchison Falls National Park area, is a haven for nature walks. The park is blessed with over 72 species of mammals, including four of the big-five; elephants, buffaloes, lions and leopards, and over 400 bird species.