Can we take the Angolan giraffe back to Angola?

By Jackson Hamutenya

The Angolan giraffe is a subspecies of the Southern giraffe, one of the four recently identified giraffe species in Africa (giraffe were previously considered to be one species). As the name suggests, the Angolan giraffe historically occurred across south-central Angola, including the southern Huila provinces where Iona National Park is located, and areas west of the Cuito and Cuando-Cubango rivers. Sadly, this population of giraffe was one of the casualties of the 40-year Angolan armed conflict. Now that Angola is enjoying political peace, it is time to bring the peaceful giraffe back to its former range.

The protracted armed conflict from the 1960s until the early 2000s caused tremendous suffering for the people of Angola and its wildlife was all but eradicated, including the giraffe. During this perilous time, national parks were abandoned, affording no protection for wildlife. When the civil war finally ended in 2002, the Angolan government renewed its commitment to conservation. As its southern neighbour, Namibia stands ready to help restore Angola’s beautiful wild landscapes to their former glory. One of the results of this joint commitment is the new Iona-Skeleton Coast Transfrontier Conservation Area (TFCA). To support the establishment of the new TFCA, the European Union has funded the SCIONA project, which will provide critical scientific conservation management and monitoring information for the TFCA.A map of the study area in the NW of Namibia and SW of Angola.

© Jackson Hamutenya

Overview of the Iona National Park, Angola and northwest Namibia/Kaokoveld.

The Giraffe Conservation Foundation (GCF) estimates that there are more than 14,500 giraffe occurring in Namibian National Parks, private land and communal land; about 425 of these giraffe live in northwest Namibia (known as the Kaokoveld) which provides similar habitat to Iona NP. Consequently, Namibia provides an ideal source population for potential reintroductions to Angola. Giraffe are thriving in the Namibian part of the TFCA and have become an iconic part of the Kaokoveld and Skeleton Coast landscape, with local communities living alongside them. Reintroducing giraffe to Angola from the healthy Namibian population would be a great way to demonstrate true transboundary conservation.

Considering all that Angola has gone through, however, there are some important questions that need to be answered first. Would the introduced giraffe survive? Are ecological conditions still suitable? Would the increased human settlement within and on the periphery of Iona NP threaten their chances of survival? As part of the SCIONA project and in collaboration with GCF, I sought to answer these questions by undertaking a feasibility assessment for reintroducing the Angolan giraffe to Iona NP.

The answer to whether or not giraffe would survive in Iona NP might seem obvious, considering that the area is part of their former natural range. However, research on reintroductions suggests that historical occurrence, or a superficial look at the reintroduction site, is not enough to ensure success. Feasibility studies provide essential information on the current state of the habitat and other social, economic and ecological factors. A feasibility study is especially important when a long time has elapsed since the local extinction of the species, as there is a chance that the habitat is no longer suitable or that the people now living in Iona NP would not protect the newly introduced animals.A team of vets and researchers pose next to an unconscious giraffe.


Fitting a GPS-satellite unit requires immobilising the giraffe. The GCF team have many years of experience with this and giraffe are not hurt in the process.A man points to a giraffe behind a tree.

© Jackson Hamutenya

Jackson Hamutenya points towards one of his study subjects.

To assess if Iona NP still offers viable giraffe habitat and whether it can support the species in the long term, I used northwest Namibia (current giraffe habitat) as a model to identify the extent of similar habitats in Iona NP. In particular, I assessed giraffe spatial ecology in northwest Namibia to predict how reintroduced giraffe would use the habitat available in Iona NP. For this purpose, I joined the GCF team to fit GPS-satellite units to seven giraffe in northwest Namibia in July 2019. Besides seeing how giraffe use the habitat over time, I identified plants giraffe prefer foraging on in Namibia. I then conducted vegetation surveys in parts of Iona NP to evaluate the abundance and distribution the giraffe’s preferred plant species.

Finally, I conducted a questionnaire survey with the community living in Iona NP to assess their willingness to co-exist with giraffe, their attitudes towards a possible reintroduction attempt and the risk of future giraffe poaching. This study therefore provides direct conservation management recommendations for giraffe reintroductions in Angola.

Eighteen people stand in a group on sandy ground, with cows in the background.

© Jackson Hamutenya

I interviewed the communities that currently live in Iona NP to find out what they thought about a potential giraffe reintroduction.

© Jackson Hamutenya

Seven giraffe home ranges in northwest Namibia (August 2019-July 2020).

Giraffe in northwest Namibia predominantly rely on the riparian woodland in and around the dry riverbeds that cut through this mountainous landscape. I found that they occasionally wander far away from the rivers, most likely to supplement their diets by feeding on non-riparian plants. One particular female (Tisa) had a fascinating monthly movement pattern. During the hot, dry season from August to November, she ranged mostly in tributaries a short distance from the upper Khumib River on the eastern side of the study area. In the hot, wet season (November to January), she moved further east into the tributaries and their riparian zones. Yet during the cold, dry season (May to July), she suddenly headed west and landed up back to where she was first tagged in the main river to forage on mostly evergreen trees during this critical time. It appears that most of these giraffe tend to move back to the main rivers where they obtain their main sources of food mostly from evergreen trees.

A map showing how a single female giraffe moved in each month of the year.

© Jackson Hamutenya

Three giraffe, including a baby, trek across the landscape of northern Namibia.

© G.C. Thomson

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