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18 March 2021
MSc study reveals giraffes feeding habits

Peigner la giraffe is a French expression that translates to “combing a giraffe.” In essence, one is wasting one’s time on a pointless task. While Jamie Paulse, an MSc graduate from the University of the Western Cape (UWC) and a Junior Lecturer and PhD candidate in Animal Science at the University of the Free State, did not entirely waste her time combing a giraffe, she did spend countless hours observing the animals feeding by day. But the task was not pointless. Thanks to her study, game farmers in the Oudtshoorn region can determine how much food is available to ensure the animal’s survival. Harriet Box questioned Paulse, from Mitchells Plain, about braving extreme weather to conduct the first detailed study of these remarkable animals’ behaviour in the Little Karoo.

What did your study entail? 
Giraffe are extralimital in the Western Cape which means they do not occur in the area naturally.This is the key factor around which the study was conducted, especially since the effects of these giraffes on indigenous fauna and flora are not well known, particularly in such a sensitive vegetation type such as thicket vegetation in the Little Karoo.
But in order for any effects to be investigated, knowledge of the ecology (such as the behaviour and the diet of the species) is important as this is always the baseline used to do any animal impact studies.

Even though the study is not brand new, it has provided a basis for other farmers and government or private conservation agencies to use as a baseline for future studies.

It is the start of future impact or long term monitoring projects in the area. We are working on publishing the results, and it will definitely be beneficial for new projects and collaborations.

In this study there were a few very important aspects that needed to be explored, which meant that it was split into three parts: the first part dealt with the activity budgets of giraffes.This was all about determining the time giraffes spend on different activities, such as foraging (eating), walking, defecating, ruminating or lying down. It was important to look at the giraffes’ behaviour compared to their behaviour in their natural ranges. 

The second part dealt with diet. We could see that giraffes spent most of their time foraging, so we wanted to find out what species they ate. This was especially important because we conducted the study in the thicket biome which was vegetation very different to what was found in their natural ranges. 

The third part of the study looked at the capacity - the food available - of each area we surveyed and the goal here was to establish the density of giraffes the area could sustain. This was a very important component of the study, as farmers needed to know how many animals they could keep. 

Why was your study important? 
My study provided significant and detailed information regarding giraffes occurring in mixed thicket areas in the Western Cape, particularly on their feeding habits. Farmers are now better informed as to the potential plant species giraffes could forage on. It also helped prospective farmers in determining whether or not their farms could possibly accommodate giraffes if they wanted to introduce them onto their farms.

How did you go about conducting the study? 
The study was done on two farms in the Little Karoo, more specifically in the Oudtshoorn area where game farms are becoming quite prevalent in the region. 

Every season we observed their activity for four days to monitor their activity and diets. This we did from sunrise to sunset, but for us the cold winter in Oudtshoorn was particularly challenging.

We used the scan interval method, where we scanned the herd every five minutes, and documented what each individual in the herd was doing. If an animal was foraging, we noted the species it ate, as well as the level it was feeding at. 

How did you find the experience? 
It was quite intensive, especially the hours, but it was also quite exciting. To do field work on a game farm all day, you get to see many different kinds of animals and experience nature in a very different way. On one of the farms, there was a free-roaming leopard. There was one season where we didn’t have an adequate vehicle, so we had to do the observations on foot. We could hear the distant growls of a leopard and even came across a venomous snake. It was definitely a scary but quite exhilarating experience at the same time.

Why did you decide to study conservation biology?
My love for animals and the environment started at a young age, and my dream was always to become a vet. Unfortunately, due to my strong emotional attachment to animals, and my inability to cope with blood, I could not pursue this career. So my passion steered me towards an undergraduate degree in conservation biology. My goal was to only obtain my BSc degree, but the exposure to various aspects of the environment - and my parents’ consistent support - motivated me to continue with my studies.

Where did your interest in studying giraffes’ feeding habits come from?
I studied Biodiversity and Conservation Biology at the University of the Western Cape, and my love for animals sparked my interest in wildlife. I was employed as an intern through the Professional Development Programme of the Agricultural Research Council (based at UWC), and I was required to complete a Master’s degree. During this period, I was fortunate enough to work with my mentor, Dr Igshaan Samuel and supervisor, Mr Clement Cupido. They told me about the need for research on the feeding habits of giraffes in the Little Karoo and I saw this as an opportunity to use this research to complete my Master’s degree.

At the time, they brought it to my attention that giraffes were being introduced on private game farms within the Western Cape and that they were considered as extralimital in this area, meaning that historically, they did not occur there naturally, but in savannah-type areas.  

The fact that they were being introduced into vegetation types such as mixed thicket was quite interesting, and we were interested in how they adapted to their new environment. At this point, I decided to proceed with a master’s project to investigate this very first large herbivore orientated study to be conducted in the department.

Do you think this specific research topic deserves further attention?
Yes, I definitely did. I am currently working on a smaller project looking at the nutritional value of forage sampled from my study sites. I have also been involved in various giraffe projects at the University of the Free State, such as the 50/50 clip focusing on the decline of natural giraffe populations in Africa.

I have also had the privilege to have been part of an international collaboration of scientists assisting a film crew documenting one of the largest successful capture, GPS collaring, and release of a wild giraffe population. The documentary, Catching Giants, won multiple prestigious awards at international film festivals.

What is your educational background?
I graduated with a Master’s degree (cum laude) in  Biodiversity and Conservation Biology from the University of the Western Cape in April 2019. Since 2017, I’ve been employed as a Junior Lecturer in the Department of Animal Science at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein. I am currently proceeding with my PhD at the University of the Free State, majoring in Grassland  Science.

What’s the secret of your success?
I was fortunate enough to be raised by two hard-working parents who provided me with all the opportunities I could have asked for. And I have learnt so much from my mentors, and I am so privileged to have had them mould me into the academic I am today. Dr Samuels’ work ethic and persona taught me how to be hard-working, and Mr Clement Cupido was a constant encouragement and taught me to constantly push through any obstacle. He also taught me how to deal with failure which was not always one of my strong attributes.

This impacted my life in such a great way. It changed me into a confident academic, not afraid to tackle any challenge. I cannot thank them enough.