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Thornicroft’s giraffe in  South Luangwa
Thornicroft’s giraffe in South Luangwa

Thornicroft’s giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis thornicrofti) is a morphologically distinct subspecies of giraffe, identified by its dark star-shaped or leafy spot markings which extend down to the lower leg. It is one of two large mammal subspecies endemic to the Luangwa Valley, the other being Cookson’s wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus johnstoni).

Giraffe Conservation Foundation and Zambia Carnivore Programme have been working together to collect valuable research data on this enigmatic animal. Their work includes development of an extensive database on individual giraffe, identified through photographic monitoring.

Phil Berry has studied giraffe in the South Luangwa Valley since the 1970s, and was the first to recognise that each giraffe has a unique spot pattern – one of his many significant contributions to the study of Thornicroft’s giraffe. This discovery allows for individual identification in the field, and the development of digital photography provides the perfect medium to record sightings and coat markings.

Lion prey on giraffe, and together with support from local tourism operators, Zambia Carnivore Programme field crews have been developing a photographic database on giraffe throughout South Luangwa National Park. Individuals are identified, sexed and aged using digital photographs, and repeat sightings allow researchers to build up a wealth of information on giraffe ecology, from behavioural patterns to population estimates and trends.

Photographic monitoring provides the foundation for future research on this species, as well as a baseline for addressing the conservation challenge of protecting the Thornicroft’s giraffe for generations to come. Current estimates indicate that no more than 800 Thornicroft's giraffe remain in the wild.

More on giraffe:
Necks on the line
Giraffe in decline
A tall story – how the giraffe got its neck
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More from this issue:
Zambezi Traveller (December 2013)

More from the Zambezi Traveller:
Luangwa Destination Profile