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Most tourists come to Kenya for a close enounter with African wildlife- and you don’t get much closer than being kissed by a Giraffe. This is a common occurrence at the Giraffe Centre, a conservation and education centre located just outside Nairobi, where visitors learn about these gentle giants through intimate experience.

Founded in 1979, The African Fund for Endangered Wildlife Kenya (A.F.E.W. Kenya) was created in a bid to save the endangered Rothschild Giraffe. Kenya is home to 3 sub-species of giraffe, the common Maasai giraffe, the darker coated reticulated giraffe, endemic to Northern Kenya, and the Rothschild.

This most rare species was originally found in Western Kenya and by 1980 loss of habitat to agriculture had reduced their wild numbers to less than 140. AFEW raised funds to captive breed the animals at their centre in Langata (a short drive from central Nairobi). Eventually 4 herds were reared and released into suitable National parks and Reserves: Lake Nakuru National Park, Mwea Game Reserve, Ruma National Park and Nasalot Game Reserve.

Ongoing release programs have seen translocations to Soy Sambu Ranch near Lake Elmentaita, Kigio Conservancy near Gilgil and Sergoit ranch in Eldoret. Today the wild Rothschild Giraffe population in Kenya is over 300.

Today the Giraffe centre remains a breeding centre and even more importantly, an education centre for the public. A well crafted information centre teaches visitors all they need to know about giraffes and their conservation, while a nature trail through the surrounding dry upland forest lets them explore typical giraffe habitat.

But the real attraction here are the giraffes themselves, and no visitor to the centre will come away without having gained a very personal experience of the world’s tallest animals.

Specially designed wooden platforms mean guests will find themselves eye to eye with members of the resident herds. On arrival, everyone is given a handful of special “giraffe treats’ which are very popular with the more sociable herd members.

Hand feeding a giraffe lets you discover the remarkably gentle nature of these huge creatures. Giraffes are herbivores who feed almost exclusively on leaves, which they pluck not with their teeth, but with a long, prehensile tongue.

The giraffes at the centre are so at ease with their human visitors that they will happily eat from your hand, or if you’d like, from between your lips with a soft lingering kiss.

Beneath the giraffes, family groups of warthog laze in the sun and take advantage of the occasional dropped treat.

This is most certainly not just a tourist attraction. The real aim of the centre is to sensitize Kenyans, especially the youth, to the importance of conserving nature and the environment.

Every day groups of local school children are brought to the centre free of charge. For most of these children it is their first time to see a live giraffe- and any initial fears are quickly dispelled by helpful guides, handfuls of treats, and the occasional kiss.

After this experience, the children attend lectures, take a guided walk in the forest, and become a part of the centre’s ongoing program to create young ambassadors for conservation. In recent years, over 55,000 children have had this remarkable experience.

All over Africa, human-wildlife conflict is creating a dividing line between people and wild animals- which are seen as threatening, dangerous and unnecessary.

The giraffe centre is helping to blur this divide, as Kenyan children and international visitors whose entry fees are supporting these programs mingle with gentle giraffes, and learn about their value to Kenya’s great natural heritage.

Every visitor to Nairobi should take the time to visit the Giraffe centre, a great way to spend a morning or afternoon that supports an even greater cause.

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