In the dry season, they are hard to find. Food is scarce in Niger's bush and the animals are on the move, loping miles a day to eat the tops of acacia and combretum trees. I'm in the back seat of a Land Rover and two guides are sitting on the roof. We're looking for some of the only giraffes in the world that roam entirely in unprotected habitat.
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Though it's well over 90 degrees Fahrenheit by 10 a.m., the guides find it chilly and are wearing parkas, and one of them, Kimba Idé, has pulled a blue woolen toque over his ears. Idé bangs on the windshield with a long stick to direct the driver: left, right, right again. Frantic tapping means slow down. Pointing into the air means speed up. But it's hard to imagine going any faster. We are off-road, and the bumps pitch us so high that my seat belt cuts into my neck and my tape recorder flies into the front seat, prompting the driver to laugh. Thorny bushes scraping the truck's paint sound like fingernails on a chalkboard. I don't know what to worry about more: the damage the truck might be causing to the ecosystem or the very real possibility we might flip over.
While Africa may have as many as 100,000 giraffes, most of them live in wildlife reserves, private sanctuaries, national parks or other protected areas not inhabited by humans. Niger's giraffes, however, live alongside villagers, most of whom are subsistence farmers from the Zarma ethnic group. Nomadic Peuls, another group, also pass through the area herding cattle. The "giraffe zone," where the animals spend most of their time, is about 40 square miles, although their full range is about 650 square miles. I've seen villagers cutting millet, oblivious to giraffes foraging nearby—a picturesque tableau. But Niger is one of the poorest, most desolate places on earth—it has consistently ranked at or near the bottom of the 177 nations on the United Nation's Human Development Index—and people and giraffes are both fighting for survival, competing for some of the same scarce resources in this dry, increasingly deforested land.
There are nine giraffe subspecies, each distinguished by its range and the color and pattern of its coat. The endangered Giraffa camelopardalis peralta is the one found in Niger and only Niger; it has large orange-brown spots on its body that fade to white on its legs. (The reticulated subspecies, known for its sharply defined chestnut brown spots, is found in many zoos.) In the 19th century, thousands of peralta giraffes lived in West Africa, from Mauritania to Niger, in the semiarid land known as the Sahel. By 1996, fewer than 50 remained because of hunting, deforestation and development; the subspecies was heading for extinction.
That was about the time I first went to Niger, to work for a development organization called Africare/Niger in the capital city of Niamey. I recall being struck by the heartbreaking beauty of the desert, the way people managed to live with so little—they imported used tires from Germany, drove on them until they were bald and then used them as soles for their shoes—and the slower pace of life. We drank mint tea loaded with sugar and sat for hours waiting for painted henna designs to dry on our skin. "I don't know how anyone can visit West Africa and want to live anywhere else in the world," I wrote in my journal as an idealistic 23-year-old.
Two nights a week I taught English at the American Culture Center, where one of my students was a young French ethologist named Isabelle Ciofolo. She spent her days following the giraffes to observe their behavior. She would study the herd for 12 years and was the first to publish research about it. In 1994, she helped found the Association to Safeguard the Giraffes of Niger (ASGN), which protects giraffe habitat, educates the local population about giraffes, and provides microloans and other aid to villagers in the giraffe zone. The ASGN also participates in an annual giraffe census. Which is how I ended up, some 15 years after I first met Ciofolo, in a bucking Land Rover on a giraffe observation expedition that she was leading with Omer Dovi, the Nigerien operations manager for ASGN.
Working on a tip that a large group of giraffes had been spotted the night before, we spend more than two hours looking for them in the bush before we veer off into the savanna. Another hour goes by before Dovi shouts, "There they are!" The driver cuts the Land Rover's engine and we approach the animals on foot: a towering male with large brown spots, two females and three nurslings, which are all ambling through the bush.
The adult giraffes pause and regard us nonchalantly before going back to their browsing. The nurslings, which are only a few weeks old and as frisky as colts, stop and stare at us, batting enormous Mae West eyelashes. Their petal-shaped ears are cocked forward beside their furry horns (which, Ciofolo says, are not really horns but ossicones made from cartilage and covered with skin). Not even the guides can tell if the nurslings are male or female. Once a giraffe matures, the distinction is easy: peralta males grow a third ossicone. The census-takers note three baby giraffes of indeterminate gender.
We watch the statuesque animals galumph forward in the bush. They are affectionate, intertwining necks and walking so closely that their flanks touch. They seem in constant physical contact, and I am struck by how much they seem to enjoy each other's presence.
I ask Ciofolo if she thinks giraffes are intelligent. "I'm not sure how to evaluate the intelligence of a giraffe," she says. "They engage in subtle communication with each other"—grunts, snorts, whistles, bleats—"and we have observed that they are able to figure things out." Ciofolo says a giraffe she named Penelope years ago (the scientists now designate individual animals less personally, with numbers) "clearly knew who I was and had assessed that I was not a threat to her. She let me get quite close to her. But when other people approached, she got skittish. Penelope was able to distinguish perfectly between a person who was nonthreatening and people who represented a potential threat."