One man is coordinating and deciding, which giraffes are living in which European scientifically led zoos, and which ones are allowed to breed. Jörg Jebram directs the European studbook, until end of 2019 from Gelsenkirchen Zoo, since 2020 out of Opel Zoo Kronberg. He gave the recommendation to support the Reticulated Giraffe Studbook in Kenya’s Samburu Nationalpark, and Charity Kalender talked to him about his activity within the zoos and the situation of the reticulated giraffes in the wild.
Charity-Kalender: Mr Jebram, 13 German zoos keep reticulated giraffes, no giraffes subspecies can be seen more. Indeed the number of giraffes is going down, the last offspring was born 2016 – what is the reason for it?
Jörg Jebram: About eight years ago I started coordinating the European studbook for the giraffe subspecies. Back then the populations were too big. There basically was no space to send offspring to other zoos. In 2014 we developed a so called long term management plan for each subspecies. The aimed population size for reticulated giraffes was determined to be 130 animals based on a precise analysis of the genetic data. Right now we have 149 reticulated giraffes in the studbook, so we still have 19 more than we need for maintaining a healthy population. The aim still is to reduced the total number a little.
CK: How do you want to reach the reduction aim?
JJ: This mainly happens by reducing the number of births. The lowering of the total number as well as the number of births is intended. The German colleagues supported me a lot in this process and I am very thankful for this. A studbook always depends on the singular participants and never is the work of one person alone.
CK: How difficult was it to convince other zoos of the reduction? After all zoos like to present offspring to attract visitors.
JJ: In my opionion the decisive factor was the fact that possible offspring could not be placed in other zoos when reaching the sexual maturity – the offspring would have needed to stay at their place of birth. Back then I communicated this intensively and precisely to the keepers to explain the situation. I think that this open and admittedly very time consuming communication was a key in motivating zoos to help reduce the birth rate.
CK: In Germany a reformation of the mammal keeping guideline was introduced in 2014, which caused a severe increase in needed size for the enclosure as well as for the giraffe houses. In how far is this a problem for the future of keeping giraffes?
JJ: This has little until no influcence on my work. At least no zoo approached me that they want or need to give up their giraffes. I think the German zoos were and still are having a very high standard. Scientifically led zoos are permanently questioning their enclosures and adjust them if necessary. In my opinion the size of an exhibit does not say a lot about the quality of keeping the animals. Of course the size of each enclosure needs to be adequate for the animal and his behavior, but there are some other factors, which at least are as important. Thus I don’t like to see the mere size being put into attention that much.
CK: In the past bulls have been sent to a herd at an young age when reaching the sexual maturity and caused lots off offspring. Wouldn’t it make more sense for the population management if the boys first were sent to a group with young stallions and when breeding bulls are needed they’d be taken out of these groups at an higher age?
JJ: From a genetical point of view it does not matter if the bull is coming to a group of females at an age of 2.5 or of 5 years, the genes are the same. As mentioned, the breeding success is very good with the current way of management. In the nature the old and experienced bulls determined the reproduction until they are chased away from younger bulls. I don’t think that a stay in a bachelor group has any influence on the well being of an animal, in the wild it is a way for the young bulls to survive – rather kind of a necessary community. In the wild the animals fight to reproduce, in zoos they are selected by their genes. I take a look at how often the genetic lines are already represented and which are not as much used. Latter ones usually are preferred for breeding to keep the genes as much spread as possible over many years. The age or the group constellation they were brought up with does not really matter for this choice.
In the next days you can read part 2 of this interview, which mainly is about the situation of the animals in the wild.