Written by Delta Willis
Once upon a time, I woke up in heaven. Out my bedroom window sat a graceful giraffe, legs folded. Jet-lagged, I blinked. I was not dreaming. I had seen this pose before, on my first safari to Kenya, in 1977, when I met the owners of the Giraffe Manor. Sitting on the lawn was a young giraffe named Daisy Rothschild.
Two years later I returned as a publicist for “The Last Giraffe” – a CBS movie. Based on a book by manor owners Betty and Jock Leslie-Melville, the film tells the story of Daisy, the first Rothschild rescued for a breeding herd that boosted this species population throughout Kenya. Then Betty discovered that most Kenyans cannot afford to visit a national park. Today busloads of African children visit the AFEW Giraffe Center near the manor. Clever Betty, who wrote ten books, coined the acronym AFEW for African Fund for Endangered Wildlife.
“I’m not sure this species is endangered,” Miriam Rothschild said when I told her about this initiative in 1979. Her uncle Walter had named the species, recently regrouped with the Nubian giraffe. Sadly all giraffe have now become officially endangered, due to habitat loss and poaching, both exacerbated by an exploding human population. Since my first visit to Africa, wildlife has declined by half, and giraffe joined the imperilled list of rhino, elephants, lion and cheetah. But there are pockets of Africa where you can still see them thriving.
With amazing foresight, 140 acres near the manor were protected by AFEW, saving this leafy ecosystem from development. The breeding herd began with a mate for Daisy, and a few more Rothschild’s rescued from war-torn areas near Uganda. Giraffe from AFEW have since been released into Nakuru, Ruma and Soysambu preserves.
While many travellers view their giraffe experience as the ultimate selfie, the conservation benefits are nothing short of visionary. When Betty died in 2007, The Guardian paid tribute to her as, “A conservationist who helped build the Kenyan population of a rare giraffe.”
“The stately Rothschild’s giraffe… is the legacy that the Maryland-born Betty Leslie-Melville… left to the world. At the outset of her interest in the early 1970s, there were only about 120, but they now number up to 400 in Kenya and 500 altogether, due to the efforts of her and her third husband Jock Leslie-Melville… who died in 1984.” The sanctuary is named after Jock.
Their legacy lives on, with a new giraffe born on 20 February 2017. This infant (emerging six feet tall) will join its mother as an ambassador for wildlife conservation, greeting school children and tourists at the centre. Your admission fee goes toward conservation projects throughout the country, from protecting dolphins and whales in the Indian Ocean, to saving colobus monkeys. So feed a giraffe, save a dolphin.
The AFEW Giraffe Center is located in the Nairobi suburb of Langata, not far from the Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage. Pulse Africa can arrange for you to visit both in the same day. Admission fee at the centre is around US$10. For those who want to wake up in heaven, we can arrange an overnight stay in the Giraffe Manor.