Gilbert the Edinburgh Zoo giraffe is keeping it in the family at Capital attraction

To Edinburgh Zoo visitors he may look like any other giraffe, towering nearly 16 feet tall in his new state of the art enclosure.

By George Mair
Sunday, 23rd May 2021, 6:25 pm

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But Gilbert, the newest Rothschild's giraffe to join the herd at the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) attraction, is the grandson of the last giraffe to live at the Zoo 17 years ago.

And Zookeeper Darren McGarry says he recognised the new arrival as soon as he stepped into his new enclosure.

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Gilbert as a baby in Belfast

Darren first got up close with a giraffe at Edinburgh Zoo in 1986 as a YTS trainee keeper whose job was to feed the world's tallest creatures and clean after them.

He was head hoofstock keeper in charge of giraffes when the last one, Siger, was sent to a new home in 2004.

Now Head of Living Collections, Darren said: "I looked after Gilbert's great grandparents, who were called Niger and Rebecca, and when they had a son we called him Siger.

Darren McGarry and Karen Stiven working with Gilbert's ancestor

"Niger died when the female was pregnant, which was sad for everyone, so we called the baby Siger because he was the son of Niger, to remember him.

"Siger was the last male giraffe that we had in the Zoo, before he was transferred to Givskud Zoo in Denmark where he was mated with a female called Ulla. They had a daughter called Daisy, who gave birth to Gilbert in Belfast five years ago.

"As soon as I saw Gilbert I recognised his great grandparents and his grandfather. All giraffes have a unique pattern but he has the same dark-centred rosette in his crazy-paving pattern. It was amazing because I just looked at him and thought 'you are exactly the same as your grandad'.

"The team from Belfast told me he loves the public and he loves to be fed, and he just reminds me of Niger and Siger."

Gilbert has a distinctive look

Edinburgh Zoo was home to giraffes from as early as the 1930s. Following Siger's departure in 2004, it would be 17 years before the animals would return, due to the lack of appropriate facilities.

The RZSS has partnered with the Namibia-based Giraffe Conservation Foundation (GCF) and Glenmorangie Single Malt Scotch Whisky to bring giraffes back to the capital.

The move was made possible after £2.8m was raised for a new "state of the art" giraffe house. The facility, which officially opens next month, includes raised feeding stations and a specially designed heating system, while overhead walkways ensure the lofty creatures - even calves emerge 6ft (1.8) tall - don't need to stoop for health checks.

Darren instantly saw something familiar in Gilbert

Outdoors, the giraffes roam around a football pitch-size landscape with "the best views" at the Zoo.

Five male giraffes are currently settling into the new surroundings after transferring from attractions in England and Northern Ireland. Gilbert is a year older than four-year-olds Ronnie, Arrow, Fennessey and Gerald.

Darren said the new facility created the right environment for the animals: "I started at the Zoo at 16 years old, in the lowest job of YTS trainee keeper. I looked after Niger and Rebecca daily, feeding, cleaning and all that and they were really great animals.

"Siger was definitely Niger's son - he was very mischievous - and we were really sad when he had to go, but it had got to the point when he was the only giraffe we had left at the Zoo and things had moved on.

"We've now built an absolutely fantastic facility for them and I'm really excited for these wonderful animals to be back. It's fabulous."

Once the males reach sexual maturity in around three years time, females could be introduced for breeding and Darren revealed Gilbert could carry on his family's legacy in the city.

Cheeky boy - Gilbert has life at Edinburgh Zoo licked

He added: "Gilbert has that lovely dark colour and good bloodlines and we identified early on that it would be really nice if he was our breeding bull. Having his great grandparents and his grandad here, I'd like to keep that line going."

The Edinburgh herd comes with an important conservation message for people who visit them. GCF, the leading international charity dedicated to giraffe conservation and management in the wild, fears the animals are suffering a "silent extinction".

In the last three decades, the number of wild giraffes in Africa has dropped almost 30 per cent to around 117,000 due to habitat destruction and hunting.

There are thought to be only around 3650 Nubian giraffes left, including around 1500 Rothschild's - one of the most endangered distinct populations.

Julian Fennessy, co-director and co-founder of GCF, said: "Zoos play an important role in sharing this message and the new giraffe herd at Edinburgh Zoo can play a vital role in raising awareness and funds for the plight of their wild cousins in Africa."

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Gilbert and his chums have great views from their huge enclosure