Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, is a singularly unremarkable stop on the safari tourist trail in Eastern Africa. It is a sprawling hub of activity that serves as HQ for UNEP (the United Nations Environment Programme) and houses regional centres of the World Bank and other international big hitters with interests in Eastern Africa. Tourists, however, arrive in Nairobi in their thousands as it is also where many international safari tours start from. Eager to start the wildlife holiday, many tourists head for the giraffe centre in Langata, 20km from the city centre, for their first taste of the great outdoors.
The giraffe centre was set up not as a supply for the Carnivore Restaurant in central Nairobi, but rather to protect and help foster the development of the endangered Rothschild Giraffe - a subspecies of the giraffe family. In 1973, there were only 130 of these giraffes living on a 18000-acre ranch in Western Kenya, the only area they were known to exist. This spurred on one Jock Leslie Melville (JLM) to initiate a programme to save these elegant animals from extinction. What he and his wife Betty did was to capture a baby giraffe to start their programme of breeding these animals in captivity at their home in Langata - home of the present centre. They named their first charge Daisy, and by 1979, with the help of further acquisitions, they had successfully bred and reared a further seven giraffes. This may sound like an insignificant number, but thanks to this humble beginning, several breeding pairs of Rothschild Giraffes have now been relocated to Kenyan national parks where they had no previous presence. There are now over 400 of these enigmatic creatures littered throughout the country.
In 1979, JLM established an education centre which he added to his (then still private) giraffe sanctuary. The centre was established to educate local and international children on the importance of the wildlife, biodiversity and ecosystems around them. By 1983, enough funds were raised to formally establish a Giraffe Visitor's Centre, thus opening the doorway for financial gain from the lucrative tourist trade pouring into East Africa. This extra trade led to the establishment of a fund, which aside from aiding the breeding programme, also established a bus route which ferries school loads of children to and from the centre for free.
The main attraction for tourists to the centre is getting to feed giraffes from an observation deck. On the deck you can, if you want to (and this Researcher recommends that you do), hear a little lecture on the success of the programme, and then you will be formally introduced to these great beasts by their first names. The guides let the giraffes snack on dog biscuits, and if you ask nicely they will let you feed them to the eager mouths in the paddock below.
An Opportunity this Researcher Couldn't Resist...
I visited the giraffe centre in December 1998 and after the tour and talk, I was keen to feed the animals myself. Having chatted to our guide, I was presented to a rather inelegant - yet wholly endearing - giraffe called Buttercup. Buttercup had suffered a foot injury and was recuperating - this explained the manner in which she galumphed her way to the observation deck.
I would have thought that feeding a giraffe was simple, but there is a specific way to ensure that the giraffe has full control of what s/he eats. Rather than holding the biscuit between my thumb and forefinger, I was instructed to lay it in the palm of my hand. Having done so, I tentatively stretched out my hand towards Buttercup. I must admit that I was a little nervous - not for fear of her biting my hand, but rather of the sensation I could expect from the giraffe's mouth on my outstretched palm. To my surprise, Buttercup gently approached and rather gently spirited the biscuit out of my hand and into her mouth, leaving my hand dry.
The guide then told me to put a biscuit in my mouth and she would do the same again. So, now emboldened and game for anything, I did just that. So I put the biscuit in my mouth, puckered up and approached Buttercup. To my utter astonishment, this great big giraffe's tongue whipped the biscuit from my mouth and gobbled up the treat. A giraffe's tongue is not as gentle as one may think - it was like sandpaper covered in glutinous spittle, most of which was dripping from my face. I was left oozing giraffe juice while the guide was rolling on the floor, paralysed by a fit of the giggles...