With the sun already behind the horizon, the bus slows down between Dosso and Niamey, and to my surprise, I see a small herd of giraffes in the moonlight. The other passengers on the bus, which originated in Zinder, all come to the right hand side, and look in awe at the gracious animals. It is an almost magical encounter, and I am more determined than before to come back here to have more time with the long-necked mammals. Even before leaving for Niger, visiting the giraffes was one of the things I looked forward to. West Africa is not the prime wildlife destination of Africa, even though just a century ago all kinds of wildlife roamed the northern half of the continent from Senegal to Egypt. Intense poaching has reduced the numbers of these animals, and in many cases, wiped out the entire population. One exception are the herd of giraffes close to Niamey: the last surviving giraffes of West Africa. Even though it is only some 60 kilometres from Niamey, getting there is a challenge for those without their own vehicle.
When searching for options on the internet, the choice seems to be between joining a tour (very expensive if you are alone), renting a car with driver, or taking a local bus, get off at Kouré, and negotiate a good deal for renting a motorbike at the entrance of the park. When I talk about this with the very friendly owner/manager of my hotel in Niamey, she readily offers to use their vehicle. The next morning, we leave much later than planned, and I am already dreading the harsh midday sun when we are on our way. The driver and another employee are from Niamey, and probably even more excited than I am: they have never seen the giraffes other than in passing from the road. They are in fact so nervous, that they start asking for directions already after leaving the city, but coming from Niamey, it is impossible to miss the big sign at the roadside with big giraffes painted on it. One of the guards has mercy on me and I pay less than I officially should, and then, the guide gets in and we are on our way into the park. After seeing the giraffes right next to the road, I expect us to find the giraffes in a couple of minutes, but we end up driving around for an hour before spotting the first giraffes. While there were only around 50 giraffes left in the mid-1980s, the number has risen to around 400 according to the guide.
What is remarkable, is that this is not really a wildpark: people live in small villages, you can see them herd their goats through the fields, which they share with the beautiful beasts. The guide stands in the car with his body through the open window, scanning the surroundings and often asking the locals we pass. We get stuck in a sandy patch and have to dig the 4WD out with our bare hands, and then, we can finally stop to the first giraffes. They are not shy, and just continue eating leaves from the upper part of thorny trees as we approach. We then see several smaller giraffes, and the guide makes us drive a little further. There, we see three young giraffes, and several adults. The young ones are not used to humans yet and turn out to be a little more nervous. We thread carefully to get closer, and then, I kneel down to make myself even smaller. My two Nigerien friends take lots of pictures with their mobile phones, until one of them realizes he lost his phone. While he searches for it, I take my time to look at the elegant animals, with their enormous eye lashes, their powerful necks, which they sometimes stretch to reach the upper part of trees. When the guy who lost his phone comes back (with the phone!), it is time to drive back to Niamey. Once back at the hotel, the other guys share their stories and pictures with those who were left behind - with voices as excited as those of a child. It only adds to my feeling of happiness at having seen the last giraffes of West Africa.
Personal travel impressions both in words and images from Kouré Giraffes (). Clicking on the pictures enlarges them and enables you to send the picture as a free e-card or download it for personal use, for instance, on your weblog. Or click on the map above to visit more places close to Kouré Giraffes.
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