Standing tall for Giraffe Conservation | Part 2

In this second instalment of Giraffe Conservation Foundation (GCF) interviews, Veterinarian Sara Ferguson provides an in-depth account of the day-today threats faced by giraffe in Murchison National Park, Uganda. Home to the largest population of giraffe in Uganda, the National Park is the central focus point for the vital efforts carried out by the GCF, who partner with the Uganda Wildlife Authority to reduce the effect of illegal wildlife snaring on giraffe.   

Sara shares her enthusiasm for her work, some of the challenges faced working in the bush and sound advice on the importance of determination and not letting anyone stand in your way.  

Why did you want to work in conservation? 

I’ve been thinking about this a lot and my response has to be, why not go for my dream job?! It’s what I have always wanted to do, working out in the field and working with wildlife. I am able to combine the veterinary side of things alongside working towards a broader community network and building relationships with the wildlife colleagues here in Uganda. I’m never stuck doing one job, nothing ever goes completely to plan so I’m continuously challenged to think on the spot.   

From a personal standpoint I love how varied the work is, and ultimately, I get to contribute to conserving the earth and the species I work with. It is really rewarding to be part of this. 

What does your current role at the GCF entail?  

 I am the Uganda Conservation Coordinator for the GCF.  

The main part of my role is supporting and working in partnership with the Uganda Wildlife Authoritycarrying out patrols 3-4 times a week.  Searching for animals, particularly giraffe but anything we come across that has been injured by wire snares. Unfortunately, there is a lot of illegal poaching here in Murchison National Park and the main poaching implement used is these wire snares, which are basically wire nooses. Giraffe are not the target species, the snares are set up for bush meat species. However, the giraffe walk through them and the snare gets stuckusually around their legs. The giraffe is strong enough to break the snare from its anchor point, but the wires remain attached to the giraffe and it gets imbedded into their leg tissue, causing wounds and infection. In extreme cases the caught snare can even cause amputation of the limb or death of the giraffe. 

We focus in particular on poaching “hot spots” where there is a lot of snare activity, while covering the majority of the northern half of the park in a week. For any giraffe observed having a wire snare, we will facilitate really quick veterinary treatment. There are two vets in the team, a young Ugandan vet and myself, and we work directly with the UWA ranger teams to provide rapid intervention. The second we see an injured giraffe we can dart it, immobilise it, remove the snare and let the giraffe go again. During these patrols we will also remove any snares we find that have not yet caught anything. It’s pretty opportunistic, if we come across one snare, we usually end up finding anything between 20-100 snares in that area.  

The law enforcement rangers from the Uganda Wildlife Authority patrol daily for snares and our team assists on the days we patrol as well. Though it may seem less exciting than darting a giraffe, it has far more impact removing the snares and preventing them imbedding in an animal.    

Last year alone our team removed 550 snares and in a three-month period we helped bring back over 1000 snares from a ranger outpost that the rangers had collected  

I also support the GCF’s research across Uganda. We have carried out biannual and annual population surveys in Kidepo Falls National Park as well as Murchison National Park. We also work together with The Giraffe Education and Research Project (GEAR), which  is another local NGO that works in Lake Mburo National Park. GEAR do a lot of educational awareness, bringing school groups into the park to see the giraffe, which is amazingas well as talk about poaching. We are actively in the process of getting similar programmes established in Murchison National Park.  

What would you say is the best part of your job? 

I would say my favourite part is seeing the animals get up after we have removed the wire from the snare. Some animals just run off, but a lot of the giraffe get up and then look back at you as if to say, “what just happened?” Often before the wire is removed the giraffe are lame but immediately you can see they are walking better and feeling less pain once that wire has been removed. When you get to an animal before the wire has caused any long-term damage, you know you have just saved that animal. Seeing the animal pain free and knowing without the team’s efforts that animal would have just continued to suffer is the best feeling.  

Is there a worse part of the job? 

The huge number of snaring incidents. These snares are so indiscriminatecatching everything. The amount of wastage that results from such mass snaring is devastating. For examplecoming across a buffalo that was caught two weeks ago and the snare was never checked by whoever set it – so now that buffalo is just a carcass. This buffalo died for no reason.  

All these animals are getting hurt with wounds that can affect them for the rest of their life.  

I also wish there were a way that meant we didn’t have to immobilise the giraffe or any of the animals. Any time an animal goes under anaesthesia there is always a risk especially with wild animals as we have no idea about their health history. But it is a necessary risk to remove the snare otherwise it will just continue to cause problems. Unfortunately, we do see animals with scaring which indicates they have been previously snaredso this wont be their first procedure. Just recently we treated a giraffe that had scaring on two other legs.  

The other aspect is the sheer challenge that these tasks and the environment you’re working in create If there is mechanical failure and you’re stuck out in the bush, you can’t just call for roadside assistance. It’s incredibly hot, you can be in the bush for long hours at a time and there is the added annoyance from tsetse flies, which doesn’t improve the situation. I wouldn’t change working in the bush, but these situations can be stressful. 

What are your career highlights so far? 

Honestlymaking it to Africa and being able to work in conservation.   

All the way through vet school people told me it was a “pipe dream, don’t even try, you should just stick to something way easier.” Yet here I am being able to help treat a record number of animals in the National Park. Our latest figure of the number of animals we have helped is over 120 which will have made a direct impact on that individual’s quality of life, as well as conservation for the species, which is incredible. Also, to be able to work alongside the Uganda Wildlife Authority out in the field is an absolute pleasurethey are really amazing 

What lessons have you learnt so far?  

I think the biggest lesson I have learnt so far (and still learning) is to keep an open mind. The most direct path is not always the one that is going to work for you personally. During vet school I took a lot of time talking to various people from the zoo and the wildlife world asking them “how did you get here?” Not one story was the same, which gave me a lot of confidence and eased that stress because there is no one road to follow or right way to do things.   

The other lesson I learntwhich was a lot harder and still sometimes niggles at the back of your mindis definitely don’t listen to the people who are negative. Keep the constructive criticism in your mind but don’t dwell on the unnecessary negativity. Building a network, taking opportunities that don’t seem straight forward and being flexible will open up further opportunities you may not have been aware of before. Ultimately having the ability to look for alternatives and understanding there is always another way and keeping motivated 

Are there any key steps you have taken on your career journey?  

Generating a strong network 

During my time at vet school, I volunteered at a zoo in Colorado which turned into employment once I graduated. It was during my time working for this zoo that I was introduced to GCF and became involved in a conservation project fitting satellite units on giraffe. This opportunity introduced me to Julian who is the co-founder of GCF. I knew I wanted to transition to working in  Africa at some point, being able to talk to the Uganda Wildlife Authority about the current issues facing the giraffe populations enabled a plan to be  put together and I ended up working where I am now. 

What advice do you have for someone following a similar career path?  

Keeping an open mind and be hesitant to say no.  

Getting into vet school and during vet school people constantly said “if you don’t get good grades you won’t make it” which is not true. Keep the bigger picture in your mind and be prepared to accept an opportunity even if you think you might not like it, or it wont help you. My conservation career journey initially started in South Africa working with cheetah and now I’m in Uganda working with giraffe.  

Another piece of advice would be to try and get a variety of experience, especially if you want to work in the field, knowing a little about a lot helps you. I’m not just a veterinarian and coordinator; I am also a mechanic when my car breaks down in the bush or being able to confidently navigate yourself and others are just examples of potentially less obvious skills which are valued.  

Building an eclectic set of skills which you can mould into any role.  

 What are your next steps? 

Continuing to grow/develop in my current role, gain more experience in the conservation field and in wildlife medicine. I honestly learn something new every time we immobilise an animal, it never goes the same way twice.  

Here at GCF there is also a large focus on capacity building. This includes helping train rangers in giraffe capture, and working with  local Ugandan veterinarians supporting their careers into wildlife medicine. Personally, I would like to expand the opportunities, for instance getting more students to come with us out into the field, so that people know how to carry out giraffe capture correctly. As an NGO we have that skill and knowledge, sharing this information will ideally reduce mortality rates in the field.  

Want more? In Part 1 of the Giraffe Conservation Foundation interviews, conservation ecologist Michael Butler Brown explores how science and diverse perspectives contribute to giraffe conservation. 

Career Stories, Careers Advice

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