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April 1, 2015

Painful lesions may make giraffes more vulnerable to lions

In the wild, most adult giraffes are capable of fending off lions. Evidence from Ruaha National Park, however, suggests that’s changing.

Across Africa, adult giraffe numbers are declining as the iconic animals are becoming an important prey species for lions. Michigan State University researcher Robert Montgomery and his graduate student, Arthur Muneza, suspect that a skin disease plaguing giraffes may be making them vulnerable to attacks.

In May, Montgomery and Muneza will conduct a field study in the greater Ruaha ecosystem, which includes Ruaha National Park in Tanzania, Africa, to see if they can help find a solution.

“What we know now is that this is a pressing conservation issue,” said Montgomery, an assistant professor of fisheries and wildlife. “However, we have yet to fully understand how skin diseases might be affecting these populations.”

In Ruaha, the skin disease affects the legs of giraffes, causing lesions and sores that crack open, ooze and bleed. The sores are uncomfortable and may hinder their mobility, making them easier targets. Ruaha National Park is home to 10 percent of the world’s lion population and a globally important giraffe population, so the location is a perfect place to learn more about this relationship, Montgomery said.

Muneza, a Rwandan educated in Nairobi, Kenya, and a MasterCard Foundation scholar at MSU, and Montgomery are finding out the hard way that they may be breaking new ground.

“Giraffes are a really interesting species,” Muneza said. “People tend to be quite familiar with giraffes because of interactions at zoos, but we know surprisingly little about their lives in the wild.”

Muneza conducted an extensive literature review of giraffe research, which resulted in fewer than 60 published manuscripts and reports and only one scientific book, published just last year.

“While this is scant information on a relatively familiar species, I’m really excited for Arthur,” Montgomery said. “Being able to conduct research – with adequate funding and interest – requires the right timing and really a lot of luck. The time to conduct this research is right now, and I can think of no better person to work on this project than Arthur.”

The researchers will conduct vehicle-based surveys to photograph giraffes. They also will set up cameras throughout the park to evaluate the giraffe population. This research will identify the number of giraffes affected by the disease, document its severity and determine if there are areas in the park where the disease is more common.

“We’re lucky to be working in Ruaha. The national park staff feels that this is an important conservation issue, and they have already collected important baseline data on giraffe skin disease,” said Montgomery, who leads MSU’s Research on the Ecology of Carnivores and their Prey laboratory.

Several giraffe populations are suffering skin diseases of varying types and severity throughout Africa. Thus, this research contributes to a broader effort focused on conserving these incredible animals throughout Africa. In fact, Montgomery and Muneza are working with the Giraffe Conservation Foundation to share what they learn with other researchers around the world.

“As a graduate student, it is an amazing experience to work with a large network of scientists to reveal the basic ecology of a species that we know so little about,” Muneza said. “Yet the public perception is that we know everything about giraffes.”