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Julian Fennessy is a giraffe protector
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Julian Fennessy is a giraffe protector
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Julian Fennessy is a giraffe protector
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"We know so little about everything and anything."
Conversations
1 October 2009

Julian Fennessy is a giraffe protector

Interview by Kate Bezar
Photography by Julie Maher

Kate Bezar on Julian Fennessy

Julian Fennessy loves Africa and its extraordinary wildlife and is determined not to let one of its most iconic, and yet least understood, species become extinct. It defies belief, but several sub-species of giraffe – yes, it’s giraffe (plural) not giraffes – are on the verge of extinction. While giraffe as a whole species are on endangered watchlists, Julian’s ground-breaking genetic research suggests that giraffe sub-species are so distinct that they need to be protected and conserved at that level. Julian is currently the Executive Director of the Kenya Land Conservation Trust, the current Chair (and founding member) of the International Giraffe Working Group, and a founder and trustee of the Giraffe Conservation Foundation.

This story originally ran in issue #21 of Dumbo Feather

Discussed in this Story

KATE BEZAR: So how are you?

JULIAN FENNESSY: Not too bad, not too bad. Dumbo feather looks like a nice publication. Have you interviewed a conservationist before?

In Issue Eight there was a philanthropist, Peter Hall, who was, amongst other things, almost single-handedly saving several species of rhino from extinction in Indonesia, and David de Rothschild was in Issue Five. He’s doing amazing things in environmental awareness, particularly global warming, by crossing the Antarctic using only wind power and the like. I was thinking that the Rothschild’s giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis rothschildi) is probably named after one of his forefathers.

It’s named after the Rothschild family, definitely, who were keen conservationists. That has obviously come through with David and kin.

So how long have you been in Kenya?

I haven’t been here too long, about two years now. Before that I was in Oz for about three and a half years. I was writing up a piece of paper for my initials at Sydney Uni. I was really just on a jolly to be honest. The wife, Steph, was working and I was sitting at the top of Coogee Bay Road looking at the water, but someone had to do it. Then we moved to Melbourne, which is where I’m from, and worked for Bush Heritage Australia, a conservation mob which buys land across the continent to protect it for biodiversity conservation. It’s quite an interesting model and it’s based on something that’s taken off in the United States called The Nature Conservancy. They buy land to manage and protect in perpetuity for wildlife, wild habitats and whatnot. I spent a couple of years working there trying to set up lots of partnerships with researchers across the country to work on Bush Heritage properties so that we’d get a better understanding of what was out there. We know so little about anything and everything.

Some of the guys we worked with were fascinating. I saw in the paper the other day that one of them, Dr John Long, the head of the Victorian Museum, was saying that three new dinosaurs had been found in Australia.

Really?

Yes, like those velociraptors, the ones on Jurassic Park that were really scary. They’ve found them up in Winton in South West Queensland. So it’s cool that they’re still finding all this freaky stuff that was running around on that big vast land over there.

I didn’t hear about that, it must have been pushed out of the news by Michael Jackson’s death or something.

Oh did he die, did he? Only joking.

[Laughs] Is there quite a nice community of conservationists over there?

Well a lot of the conservation people have come from money, that’s how they’ve been able to spend their time doing it. They’ve often been ‘Oxbridge’ [Oxford or Cambridge] educated; they’re cut from the same cloth and it’s just not me. I can smooge along with the best of them, but at the same time I love to sit back, have a beer and talk nonsense with friends. In our spare time what we mostly like to do is go and watch wildlife; that is my life, that is my passion, and if there’s a day that I stop doing that, then I’ll pack up my bag and go and work in Collins Street [central Melbourne].

I can’t imagine seeing you there any time soon.

Well I did work there. Bush Heritage Australia have their base there, but after two and a half years I wanted to leave because the smoke was killing me and the cram in the train from Armadale into town every day … I ended up riding my bike to work and back because I just couldn’t do it anymore, I just hated having the crowds around me. Here it’s a bit of a happy balance. I get to run around in the bush, but I do have to come back and sit behind a desk and do the hard yards. It’s more gratifying.

And you don’t have to take a crowded train to work. So how did you get into the whole conservation gig in the first place?

Well, I didn’t grow up with this at all. My old man was a professor of pharmacology at Melbourne University and my mum was a nurse. We were lucky – had a good education at a posh school in Melbourne, Xavier College. I always wanted to be a stock broker or a financial person because that’s really the training you get at one of these all boys private schools, but I wanted to go off for a year on a Rotary exchange. I wanted to go to Sweden, for obvious reasons as a young boy, but my parents said, “No bloody way in hell, you can go to South Africa and get a year in a quality, English education system.” It was fantastic. I lived with some beautiful families who showed me the bush and it opened my eyes. At the same time my old man died that year.

While you were away?

Yeah. He’d had cancer from when I was a little boy. It all sort of culminated in the one thing. It made me ask, what the hell are we doing in life? It’s just too short. I don’t want to spend it behind a desk, I want to get out there and be a part of it. I don’t want to be silly, but I want to do something that I want to do for years. One family especially in South Africa had a really strong interest in the bush and I picked that up from them. I came back to Oz, finished off my schooling and then did an undergraduate degree at Deakin University in Wildlife Management. At the same time I did a small diploma by correspondence from South Africa in Game Ranch Management. I went back to South Africa, worked as a bit of a game ranger and travelled basically half the continent in one of my holidays, questioning – is this what it is for me?

This story originally ran in issue #21 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #21 of Dumbo Feather

Africa’s one of those things … it bites, gets under your skin and you can’t let it go.

I know my family would really wish it would let go but, unfortunately, that’s life and it just becomes a part of you. I’m sure everyone feels that way in the different things that they do. Here, the good and bad of it all has gotten hold of me.

Do you know why? Do you know what it is about Africa that has that effect on people and yourself?

It’s raw. You have to make something happen yourself, I think. When you live in the city, when you get on a bus you get handed a ticket. When you go to the coffee shop you get handed your food. For me it’s like, no, you’ve got to go and find your ticket, you’ve got to go and find your food and make things happen for yourself. I’m not keen on going missing in the wilderness or anything like that, so it was just that it opened up a new world that was sitting there waiting for me to get hold of and it said, the world’s your oyster. Africa, although it’s not as untouched as it was years ago, which would have been a dream playground, has elements that we still know so little about. If you want to make something, if you want to go and find something, then you can actually do it.

Can you hear me Julian? [Phone line dies].

[Regain connection] The joys of Africa. Phone lines into Kenya are hit and miss some days sadly.

That’s fine, we’ll just battle on. So I think I read somewhere that your initial interest, or at least your imagination, was initially captured by rhinos rather than giraffe.

Where the hell did you find that? I haven’t thought about that for years. Yeah, definitely. I think rhinos and the plight of rhino numbers is just ridiculous and an amazing story all in one. Southern white rhinos got down to 20 individuals across the whole continent, but now they’re back up to 17,500. I thought it would be really cool to work with rhino. Later I thought I’d do elephants because all these famous people do elephants, and then, fortunately, I was working with elephants in Namibia, but soon I realised there were too many egos involved in elephant issues and conservation efforts; it’s just ridiculous. They’re all fighting over their own egos more than they’re fighting over the solutions. Then, when I was working in Namibia for many years, I got more and more interested in giraffe and I realised that there’s such a paucity of information. I thought, if you were ever going to make yourself, then this might be the beast to figure it out.

They’re big, people love ‘em, so let’s find out a bit more about them.

I did a bit more study and a PhD because the reality is that you need that piece of paper to stamp your authority on anything. Then, little by little, I found that once I started putting little pieces of information out, people started to come to me for more information. That was when I decided that this wasn’t about me; it was about getting more and more information out about giraffe. More captive world people like zoo keepers and managers, and even the wider population of people, keep coming to me and asking me, “Can we get more information? Can you do a workshop? Can you help us with this?” and I think that’s just fantastic, that people really want to learn and find out stuff. If I can just pull a few things together, not necessarily my stuff, but also other people’s research, we’ll be one step closer to finding out more. For me that’s what it’s all about, knowledge is power. So it started with rhinos but essentially it’s just the African wildlife.

And over time, has the giraffe become not so much a challenge, but also a passion?

Definitely. I’ve worked with a few people who have loved them from day one, but I think it’s actually helped me by being … being not so passionate about them from the beginning. I’ve really come to appreciate how they’ve adapted, how the modern giraffe has evolved across the whole continent, and their plight. God, I just think, if we can’t save the giraffe then how the hell is any other species going to be saved?

Everyone knows them; they’re iconic; they’re Disney. I’ve worked now in quite a lot of countries helping governments by trying to figure out genetically are the giraffe different or not. I now know that they’ve all evolved really differently and they all need to be protected. Essentially there are different species out there and they all deserve really high conservation importance, so how do we do it? The first way to protect them is to understand something about them, so let’s go around the globe and talk to people, get more information, and that can help people stand up and understand more. For example, in Zambia there’s only 1000 giraffe left and they’re really important so now I am working with a researcher doing some giraffe research there but it’s not what they have been doing originally; they’ve been doing wild dog and lion research. So we’ve started a little partnership there, it’s little things, but it all snowballs.

When was it that you first realised that giraffe were not one species but were actually multiple species, and was that pretty exciting?

Yeah, chasing down giraffe, capturing them and putting collars on them is probably the most exciting thing you could ever do with your pants on, but when we found out a couple of years ago that the giraffe were very different – by working with some researchers in the States, our eyes all lit up going, “My goodness, I think we are onto something amazing here”. I’m not really bothered so much whether they’re genetically different species or not, but even their patterns look really different: some have got big white lines, some have got star-shaped patterns, some have got really, dark liver spot patterns. When you see all the different giraffe on one piece of paper, everyone goes, wow I didn’t actually know how different they are because Disney doesn’t show you that. But yeah, that for us was really exciting and it’s really driven me. As a non-geneticist I’ve taken up this project with a lot of gusto and brought others along. At the end of the month I’m off to go dart giraffe in Botswana for three weeks. I happily run around in the bush and shoot giraffe … I should explain, we get a genetic sample out of a little dart that, when fired from a rifle, just takes a tissue sample. I get to run around in the bush for three weeks and then get people in America to do the finicky, hard genetic analysis work and we get to find out something fascinating that’s happening across this continent.

I’m setting up an opportunity now to go to Cameroon, I’ve got someone who’s collecting samples in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and I’m meeting someone tonight about Southern Sudan – really, passion just oozes out of you when you get going. Imagine if I actually got paid for it – how exciting would that be?

For us laymen, what does it actually mean to be a species rather than a sub-species?

A species in a traditional sense is an animal which can breed with each other and have babies which can have more babies. For example, if you’ve got a horse and a donkey they can produce a baby, a mule, but it is not viable and therefore highlights that a horse and donkey are separate species. So that’s in the traditional sense, but underneath that, for example, the giraffe may look exactly the same to some and interbreed in the zoo environment but they actually don’t interbreed in the wild because they are geographically and ecologically isolated. They can produce a viable offspring, so in the traditional sense they are the one species, and different giraffe populations across the continent are, as such, called sub-species. We think they’re actually more than just different giraffe sub-species because they’re so genetically different. Some of them have had a million years separation between the populations of the sub-species. So that’s what we’re looking at now, that if they’re that separate then that’s as, or more, important than whether they can breed and produce viable offspring. Difficult to understand I know!

So if all this work is unpaid, as you just implied that it is, how do you support yourself and your family?

What pays the dollars? I actually have a day job and luckily my wife has always worked. I run an organisation called the Kenya Land Conservation Trust (www.klct.or.ke). It’s the first national land trust in Kenya to look at protecting and supporting wildlife habitat outside of protected areas. About 75% of all wildlife in Kenya is reliant on areas outside of national parks and protected areas. So it comes back to my passion: if you can’t protect the land then you can’t protect the wildlife. We work across the country with different players. We try to link up wildlife areas and habitats – corridors. The most important thing is to get some benefit out of wildlife protection for people whether it’s a social or economic benefit. Otherwise, there’s no real incentive for people to conserve their environment. I’m really very lucky because my wife has given me leeway to come back and live in Africa. She had a nice job in Melbourne working for the government in sustainability, but it’s a great place to bring up our kids (Luca, who’s three and a half years, and Molly, who’s seven months) here so we decided to bite the bullet. Actually I first came over working for IUCN (formerly the World Conservation Union). I was coordinating the African Elephant Specialist Group across the continent. It was quite exciting; including facilitating and writing the strategic plan for managing Africa’s elephants on behalf of all 37 Elephant Range State countries in Africa. However, I fairly quickly realised that it wasn’t for me – a lot of politics and limited action. Remember, elephant people have big egos. It was a great learning curve, but luckily I picked up this job which I am very happy about – it is more me. I think it’s great. It’s setting up something from scratch. I’ve had to do everything from ordering my pens, to developing a website, to meeting people on the ground throughout the country and asking, “What’s the biggest need for you?”

Is that funded by the Kenyan Government?

No, it’s an independent NGO [non-governmental organisation] funded by the African Wildlife Foundation and The Nature Conservancy based in America.

So you mentioned that Africa’s a great place to bring up kids. We’ve all seen the movies, Out of Africa …

“I once had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills …”

Absolutely. I’m sure the picture I have in my mind is miles from the reality of what you’re living.

Well, as I look out my window, I could be in a rural version of Collins Street with cars up and down and I’ve got Coca Cola in the building opposite me. Living in Nairobi, affectionately termed Nai-robbery for so many years now, it’s a city – that’s the reality – but it’s what’s on its doorstep that’s so special.

 

Within an hour I can be sitting in the Rift Valley, one of the greatest natural wonders of the world, looking at flamingos.

We were here at the end of 2007 when there was all the post-election trouble. Basically, one of the government leaders claimed victory, the other one claimed there was a problem with that, and about 1300 people were killed over the next couple of months, with fighting throughout the country as a result. The day it all flared up we had bullets over our heads in our house, tear gas everywhere. I was driving to and from work for about a month and I would see badly burnt-out cars, sometimes bodies, things in flames. That’s not what you come to a place for. It’s times like that when you wonder what the hell you’re here for. Kenya is beautiful, but at the same time it is a very frustrating place to live. Kenyans are not helping Kenyans so why should we help them? But, the bottom line is, if Kenyans aren’t even helping Kenyans, who is helping the wildlife? Here you also have to put up with a ridiculous amount of corruption, you have to deal with it, or get out of the fire. You take the good with the bad. But, my wife is German by trade and here we’re closer to Germany; it’s a quick flight from here. I think it’s so important for the kids to learn about their German culture, to see their grandparents there. All of that combines into a lot of positives … and I get to run around in the bush. It is remarkable; the people that you meet, legends that you read books about when you’re a little kid growing up, and you think, my goodness, I was just having a beer with him. What more could you ask for?

Those people for whom Africa got in their blood 30, 40 years ago and are still there – do you think that’ll be you?

Yeah. Yeah, don’t ask my wife. That’s a really tricky question. I think I will always be involved. I think we might have to do some stints elsewhere as the kids grow up. I don’t want to send the kids to boarding school, although I keep threatening that. I want to be there, I want to kick a footy around with them. I want to see my wife help them with their maths, not me [laughs]. I want to be in their life because I … My old man passing away was really sad and I thought I missed out on so much because he and my mum worked hard to put me and my three older brothers through school. You don’t have to do that; life’s changed; as long as you can have a comfortable living somewhere …

I think we might have to leave these fair shores for a little while, but there’s no doubt that, if not yearly, I will be back doing something. I just can’t let go, and giraffe need someone to stand up for them. That’s the bottom line; they need someone who’s flying the flag for them.

Absolutely. Do you think your dad would have been proud of you?

Yeah, I think he would have loved to have had a few beers over here in this part of the world. He and I played a lot of sport together when I was a kid and that was my passion. I had a run down with the old St Kilda Under 19s, and then I played state touch rugby and things like that, so it is definitely a part of my life. Sport, I think, gives you balance and for me, running around and being part of a team sport gives a sense of camaraderie. Last year here I was helping to coach one of the top rugby sides in Kenya and it’s just a great feeling to do something outside of what you do day-to-day. I think my old man would have loved that. I’m actually just doing what I want and I’m not being silly, I’m not being frivolous, I’m basically following my dream, for want of less corny words.

So if some fairy godmother or father swooped down and gave you unlimited funding, what’s one of the first things that you’d do?

Oh I’d love to buy a Porsche or a Ferrari.

Ha ha, for the giraffe!

Oh sorry. I think to be honest, what would be amazing would be to be able to dedicate time to sit down and pull a lot of information together. It’d be like trying to create a bit of a secretariat. There’s a lot of boffins out there and a lot of different giraffe information, so how do we pull that together and present it to the world properly? Once we better understand each little pocket of giraffe out there, how can we then tap on the doors of those governments and say, “How can we help you manage your giraffe better?” I’m trying to do that a little bit; I’ve just started a brand new foundation in the UK called the Giraffe Conservation Foundation [www.giraffeconservation.org]. It’s the first giraffe organisation of its kind, ever. In economic crisis time it’s not great, but it’s a start. We’re trying to pull a few dollars in from friends and family and we’ll try to host the odd ball and event, when we get around to it. It’s trying to get the name out there and to explain that we’ve got some really important giraffe projects, could we even just get them $1000? Everyone gets funding to do the sexy stuff on the ground, but the development world and the funding world have got things wrong. They have to show they’re doing something to the people who are paying them money, but they need to take a leap of faith and say, ok, if I invest something in someone, something greater is going to come out of it in the longer term, rather than just what’s going to happen in a six-month contract.

This might be a really stupid question, but giraffe aren’t anywhere except in Africa, right?

Yeah, the modern giraffe came down from Europe about seven million years ago, the pre-giraffe. Today you only find what we know as the giraffe in Africa.

Are the major threats to them loss of habitat … Is poaching a problem?

Yeah, poaching’s a big one. Their tail is used especially for people as fly swats.

Oh you’re kidding?

It would be an amazing fly swat, of course, because it’s got this long tail and is a sign of distinguishment, a sign of wealth. Their skin is used for shoes; it’s used for mats and there’s a lot of meat on them. In countries where there’s been a lot of civil unrest or civil war, they call it ‘war fodder’ because giraffe just stand and look at you.

They don’t run so you just put a bullet in them, they fall down and there’s some tucker for the next few days. So their numbers really have plummeted.We think in Northern Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia – and this is a great example – about ten years ago there were about 30,000 of these reticulated giraffe which really are quite stunning, probably the typical giraffe you see out there in the world, but there’s less than 5000 now. People just don’t know that. We need to get the plight of them out there somehow.

In terms of saving them, is it a matter of creating greater conservation areas, or is it breeding programmes … ?

No, to me the traditional way of lock ‘em up and throw away the key is not going to work in Africa. It’s all about people; it’s all about community conservation. Most of these giraffe live outside of national parks.

Why is that?

While some of the national parks are perfect habitat, most of them are not, or, and this is probably more common, the park itself is too small to support large numbers so they have to go outside of the park for more food. In West Africa there are 200 giraffe and none of them are in a National Park. They all live amongst communities only 60 km from the capital in Niger. In Zambia, where there are at least 1000 left, half of them live outside the South Luangwa National Park because the park’s not big enough. It’s a mix of all these things combined and it’s a cumulative effect. It’s not just poaching, it’s not just habitat loss, it’s not just human population increasing, it’s what happens when you add all of them together. It’s exactly the same thing in Australia, to be honest.

If you really thought about it, you could get pretty depressed about the whole state of affairs, but thankfully there are people like you out there doing what you do.

If you sat back and thought about it too much, you’d think you were wasting your time.

Do you have any heroes; people whose work or life you admire and think have done great things?

My wife and I have been talking lately about how amazing it would be to have a mentor. I don’t think they exist much anymore, to be honest. I think the world is moving too fast, people are too busy and, to be honest, I have not found anyone in conservation circles … I’ve found people that I’m attracted to, to talk things through with, to learn from, but really I try to stay away from people in conservation because they all have preconceived ideas. I really try to talk with friends who are working in totally different industries. I can’t talk conservation with them, but I can talk life. So I don’t have any heroes and that’s a sad thing. I wish I did have a hero. I always wanted a hero. What I want to do now is be happy that my family is happy with what I’m doing; to me that’s the most important thing. I don’t want to be a hero to them, but I want them to be comfortable and happy with who I am and what I’m doing.

The world needs really good heroes.

Kate Bezar

Kate Bezar started Dumbo Feather—and is a living legend, simple as that. Read all about her and the kernel of an idea that became a magazine.

Photography by Julie Maher

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