Up close and personal with Rothschild giraffes

By Kassim Shitawah

We departed early from Nairobi because we were not sure of the centre’s exact location. At the Mamba Village junction, we turned left towards Karen’s Hardy shopping centre. From here we saw signposts leading to the Giraffe Centre and we followed them right up to the gate.

The centre has various facilities like a car park, gift shop, a small restaurant and a one-storey structure that acts as the education and information room. The balcony of the first floor is where one gets up-close and personal with the giraffes.

Visitors feed giraffes under the watchful eye of the attendants. Photo: Courtesy

There is a low concrete fence separating these structures and the giraffe sanctuary. The sanctuary is an open bush where the giraffes are let loose to roam about.

Giraffe Centre is managed and run by the African Fund for Endangered Wildlife Kenya (AFEW). It is a non-profit making organisation, which was founded by the late Betty and Jock Leslie Melville in 1979. The main aim of establishing the centre was to protect the Rothschild giraffe, a sub-species of the giraffes that was fast disappearing due to the reduction of its habitat in Western Kenya due to intensive farming.

Through AFEW, funds were sourced and breeding sites identified for the protection, breeding and upbringing of the giraffes.

After paying the entry fee, we headed towards a balcony where other foreign and local tourists congregated. Some were feeding the giraffes while others looked on in awe, occasionally taking photos when a giraffe struck a good pose.

One of the attendants at the centre welcomed us and gave us pellets to feed the giraffes. The main attraction here is the opportunity to feed the beasts and consequently get close to them.

Seemingly communicating in a language understood by the giraffes, the attendants motioned them to move closer to the visitors, which they did. We found many people queuing to feed the giraffes so we patiently waited our turn.

Sheer size

"Daisy, Daisy, Daisy," one of the attendants cooed repeatedly at a reluctant giraffe. Finally, the giraffe heeded to the attendant’s calls and approached the platform. The crowd surged forward to offer it pellets.

Soon, a second giraffe approached and visitors enjoyed feeding them the numerous pellets. They took turns feeding the giraffes as others took pictures.

The writer enjoys close encounter with a giraffe.

My turn eventually came but as I approached the giraffe, I found its sheer size intimidating. I have seen giraffes many times during my numerous excursions in the wild and in game parks but I had never been this close enough to touch them.

The giraffes at the centre are so accustomed to people that they enjoy being caressed. I spread my palm with the pellets on it and offered it to the giraffe. In one swipe it gobbled all the pellets! I was exhilarated.

The attendant dared one of us to French kiss the giraffe but no one was willing. He informed us giraffe saliva is antiseptic and thus kissing the giraffe is not harmful. One visitor challenged the attendant to demonstrate the kissing process so we could follow suit but he slyly gave excuses.

I yearned to have my photo taken with a giraffe and I was determined not to leave the centre without this prized photo. I asked one of my friends to take one as I fed the giraffe.

Antiseptic saliva

After the feeding session we were ushered to an education room where a lecture on giraffes was in progress. Here, we learned some very interesting facts about the giraffes.

We were also given a history of the centre and its projects. Apart from rescuing and rearing giraffes, the centre also organises outings for children from underprivileged backgrounds and slums.

During such visits, the children are sensitised on issues of ecology and environmental conservation, the objective being to expose them to issues related to the environment so they grow to become good conservers and managers.