How a giraffe expert is working to protect their genetic future

Jason Pootoolal has pioneered artificial insemination of giraffes African Lion Safari. He explains why it's important for an animal most people don't think of as endangered.

Jason Pootoolal works at African Lion Safari in Hamilton, Ont.

Jason Pootoolal describes the importance of giraffe insemination and how to save the species. 6:31

Jason Pootoolal is well known in the giraffe world. 

Pootoolal, giraffe and hoof supervisor at African Lion Safari, was the first in Canada to impregnate one of the animals through artificial insemination. And another baby is on the way, this time through frozen semen insemination.

At the Flamborough facility, Pootoolal works on techniques to save and use genetic material to continue the population of the Rothschild giraffe, a breed so rare that only about 1,000 remain in the world.

Pootoolal is featured in CBC's The Nature of Things documentary "Giraffes: The Forgotten Giants."

CBC News interviewed him on Thursday. Here's an abbreviated version of that interview. To hear the whole seven-minute interview, click on the image above.

How dire is the situation with wild giraffes right now?

The situation is actually quite dire and the main problem is that people simply don't realize giraffes are in this much danger. When you think of endangered species, you tend to think of pandas, cheetahs, gorillas. But there are certain subspecies of giraffes that are actually much more critically endangered than those iconic species.

Why is there less attention paid to giraffes than other species facing a population decline?

Much as the Forgotten Giants documentary shows, I think a lot is because although they're such popular animals, not much known about their biology. This catch 22 of people love them but don't know much about them has left them in this precarious position.

You work with giraffes every day. What kind of personalities do they have?

That is actually one of the very fascinating things. Typically if you just see these animals in a zoo or in the wild, you tend to think all of them would have the same personality. But at African Lion Safari, we have a family. Like a family, you have different personalities. Some are loners. Some are precocious. Some are more mischievous than others. It really makes for exciting times working with them when they have these different personalities.

We're not far from the first birthday of one of your success stories, Safari. Can you tell us about her?

Safari was the first giraffe born through artificial insemination in Canada. She was really a milestone in that it was culmination of our program, which was developed as a way to safeguard giraffe genetics for the future and developing a technique to better share the genetic information across the entire globe. It was quite significant in that aspect.

You have another baby giraffe on the way.

We're awaiting the birth of the first giraffe to be born through frozen semen insemination. The significance of that, of course, would be that by being able to freeze the genetics in liquid nitrogen, you're able to store it for a very long time. Throughout time we'll be able to use the genetic material of giraffes that left us long, long ago.

The kind of giraffe you work with at African Lion Safari, the Rothschild giraffe, is a particularly endangered breed.

They are a subspecies of giraffe from Kenya and they are indeed one of the giraffes that need our attention the most. Their numbers have dropped to around 1,000 which when you think about it is such a small number for such a huge majestic animal.

How will your efforts be put to use in the field to help wild giraffe populations?

The main thing right now will be to develop these techniques so that if giraffe populations, heaven forbid, ever get to these critically low numbers, we'll have the techniques of artificial reproductive technology to help invigorate the population through new genetics. In addition to that, we'll also be able to save genetic material from the giraffe that are currently with us so that throughout time, in the future, if the population continues to plummet, we'll have a much broader genetic base to help bring them back.