Imagine if you could see the world from a giraffe’s perspective – how they browse, drink, run, interact with other giraffes and even how they use their tongue to clean their nostrils? You might think attaching a video camera to a giraffe’s head is outrageous, but for researchers at the University of the Free State (UFS), this idea has revealed never-before-seen footage. By Arnold Ras

What does the world look like from a giraffe’s point of view? For Dr Francois Deacon, lecturer at the UFS’ Department of Animal, Wildlife and Grassland Science, the answer is very interesting indeed. His groundbreaking project is fitting video cameras to giraffe’s heads and revealing new insights into their behaviour

Francois initially combined forces with fellow researcher Nico Smit to develop a head harness equipped with a satellite GPS device. They set their sights on giraffes in South Africa’s Kalahari region, bordering Namibia and Botswana, to examine the animals’ behaviour – something that had never before been documented.

Giraffe reasearch-monitoring-Court UFS

With the help of video cameras mounted on giraffes’ heads, wildlife researchers at the University of the Free State are making great strides in understanding these long necked animals better. Pictures and videos courtesy of Francois Deacon, University of the Free State

Giraffe research-fitting-Court UFS

Dr Francois Deacon and his team fitting a tranquilised giraffe with a satellite GPS device.

But his hunger to know and learn more did not end there … Francois and his research team successfully developed a device to fit the latest GoPro action camera on a giraffe’s head. “After three different design attempts, we were the first researchers ever to achieve this. We can now discover how giraffes see their world and its environment. This footage will change the way we think about giraffes forever.

“For the video camera to be mounted, the giraffe does not have to be tranquilised. The device can be manually fitted when any giraffe is being translocated, relocated or released into the wild. The plan is to fit this design to all future research individuals on game farms and nature reserves. Findings from this study will shed light on the adaptation success of relocated giraffes, the impact of these animals on vegetation, seasonal movement, and social and population dynamics.”

Giraffes in crisis

Francois, only 31, started his career in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park in 2008, and immediately became aware of the need to better understand and manage giraffes in national parks and nature reserves. “My PHD focused on giraffes’ habitat preferences, diet selection and spatial utilisation, which had never before been established. During this time I got involved with various international projects, national parks, universities and other researchers, and we are all of the same opinion: giraffes in Africa are nearing extinction – more quickly than we could ever have imagined. There are six times more elephants on the African continent than giraffes and people don’t realise this. Imagine visiting Africa with no giraffes.”

According to estimates by the Giraffe Conservation Foundation, there are currently fewer than 80,000 individuals across all subspecies left. Two of the nine subspecies are already endangered, with fewer than 200 individuals. Francois was also part of the team responsible for a report urging that giraffes in Africa should be classified as endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. The good news? The subspecies found in Southern Africa is the only one that is growing, and has doubled in numbers over the last 15 years.

Ingenious design

“When giraffes are translocated we fit the video camera just before the animal is released. The device cleverly fits onto the giraffe’s ossicones (horns) and will stay on the animal’s head until the camera’s battery is flat. Once the battery has run out, the device automatically falls to the ground. Within the device is a transmitter to track exactly where the camera fell off.”

Giraffe reasearch-camera holder-Court UFS

The specially developed device fits comfortably on the giraffes’ ossicones (horns).

A film company in Texas, Iniosante Studios, sponsored the GoPro action cameras and is currently producing a documentary called Last of the Longnecks, revealing the giraffe’s slide towards extinction. “Worldwide giraffe populations have plummeted from 140,000 in 1999 to less than 80,000 in 2015 – their numbers have been cut in half in just 15 years. Even more startling: reticulated giraffes in Kenya have lost 80% of their population over the same period. The majority of the world is oblivious to the giraffe’s silent extinction,” says Francois.

Giraffe research-blood samples-Court UFS

Giraffe blood, milk and parasite samples collected for research purposes across the South Africa.

Fascinating findings from giraffe cam

  • We can clearly see how giraffes close their nostrils when feeding – this is to avoid ants from entering.
  • Giraffes are very inquisitive animals – they will walk to smell and look at any strange item or shape in the wild.
  • They frequently groom, smell and rub against other individuals.
  • They walk long distances in search of favourable foliage, making them very selective feeders.

Get involved

Want to master the management of wildlife? The UFS offers a bursary accompanied with a relevant research project for interested post-doctoral students. Contact Francois at [email protected] or Nico Smith at [email protected] for more information. Click on the video below to find out more about the UFS’ giraffe research and sponsorship options.