Asiwa, the giraffe, is brought from a flooded island in Kenya. She was blindfolded to keep calm during the trip.
Asiwa, a Rothschild giraffe in western Kenya, was running out of time.
For years she and seven other giraffes lived on a peninsula that reached as far as Lake Baringo. But rising lake levels, caused by relentless rain, had gradually turned the peninsula into an island and the animals stranded.
It was especially gloomy for Asiwa, who was stuck on a swampy part of the island and separated from the other giraffes and only had about an acre of land to forage for food. And the floods got worse and worse.
She had to be saved.
Conservationists have partnered with Kenyan wildlife authorities and local community members to move the giraffes off the island to a new sanctuary within the 44,000-acre Ruko Conservancy.
Asiwa was the first to be brought to safety last week and traveled for about an hour on a custom-made steel barge. A second giraffe, Pasaka, was rescued the day after Asiwa.
But it’s not that easy to move these gentle giants.
“They don’t know you are trying to help them,” said David O’Connor, Save Giraffes Now’s president, who was actively involved in the rescue effort. “They think you are a predator. So they are really trying to work against you, which makes it even harder. “
The initial hope, O’Connor said, was that they could lure the giraffes onto the barge by placing mangoes and other goodies there. But because of the rainy season, there is an abundance of food on the island. The treats wouldn’t be enough.
This meant that the giraffes had to be hit with a dart, which is a particularly dangerous proposition because of their anatomy. O’Connor said when giraffes fall to the ground, they can choke on their own saliva or their brains can be damaged from changes in blood pressure. It is therefore important that a veterinarian is there after the giraffe falls to counteract the drug immediately with a reverse drug.
“It’s not like an elephant or a rhinoceros where you just shoot it, it falls over and it’s okay,” he said. “The giraffes are like a Formula 1 car. You can’t mess with their innards too much or they’ll have real problems. “
Asiwa went down in a thick acacia brush, probably as far from the barge as possible. But the team was immediately there to attend to their needs.
They put lead ropes around her shoulders and a blindfold over her eyes to keep her calm.
“She was amazing,” said O’Connor. “She is a very, very tough girl. … When we took her to a more open space where there was an established path, she just went straight onto the barge. Sometimes it looked like someone was walking a puppy on a Sunday afternoon. It was wonderful.”
It was a smooth sailing on the barge, and Asiwa’s head loomed over the high walls. She was still blindfolded and socks were tucked into her ears to block out noise.
She was surrounded by O’Connor and the other rescue workers, who kept their voices low and focused intensely on the work at hand.
“Although everyone was pounding at the beginning of the sedation, it was absolutely perfect by the end,” he said. “And Asiwa was absolutely wonderful on the barge crossing. I think it was built for the sea. “
Photographer Ami Vitale documented Asiwa’s rescue mission and was there when the barge reached the mainland.
“The wonderful part was seeing her gently stroll off the boat as the blindfold was released like nothing had happened,” Vitale said. “It was really a scene that could have been biblical.”
There was a celebration at the Ruko Conservancy, which was founded in 2006 by two formerly warring churches.
“The plan was to make the giraffe a symbol of unity and peace in order to end its longstanding conflict,” said Vitale, a National Geographic photographer whose work often reminds us of how our fates correspond to those of other species is intertwined.
Since documenting a story about one of the world’s last white rhinos in 2009, Vitale has focused on wildlife and conservation. Her latest book shows how China is trying to save pandas from extinction.
“I hope these images inspire people and remind them that this is the only home we have,” she said. “We put some big holes in our common little life raft. What happens next is in all of our hands. “
Six giraffes remain on the flooded island in Kenya, but plans to rescue them by the end of January.
The Rothchild giraffe is an endangered subspecies. Due to poaching and habitat loss, only about 2,000 of them are left in Africa – 800 in Kenya, according to O’Connor.
“The hope is that this is only the first step in bringing these giraffes back to their historic home in the western Rift Valley, hopefully in the next 20 to 30 years,” he said.
Ami Vitale is a National Geographic photographer based in Montana. Follow her on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
Photo editor: Brett Roegiers and Cody McCloy