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Journey of his lifetime: transporting Mabuti the giraffe

Transporting a large animal is no easy task. Monarto Zoo Senior Ungulate Keeper Mark Mills takes us on the year-long journey for Mabuti the giraffe’s transfer to Orana Wildlife Park. 

Words and photos by Mark Mills

“About a year ago, we were advised our young male Mabuti was to be transferred to Orana Wildlife Park in New Zealand. While I work with all ungulate species at Monarto, I’ve always loved the challenge of working with giraffe. Over the years Monarto has undertaken dozens of giraffe transfers, and every one is a huge challenge. But coordinating the transfer of a live giraffe to another country? This had my brain racing!

Mabuti was born in our African Plains exhibit in April 2017, the last of 25 giraffe calves sired by our famous breeding bull Tambo. His transfer to Orana would provide New Zealand’s giraffe population with a valuable boost in genetics, and hopefully he would sire multiple calves like his famous father.

Where to start?

Over the next weeks and months we started discussions about the broad logistics of the operation, and it began to take shape. Giraffe are the tallest animal in the world, and finding a plane that could accommodate a crate several metres high was not realistic. But a cargo ship? This was a possibility. We contacted a number of shipping companies, many who declined taking on Mabuti due to potential risks. Eventually, we found the ANL Elanora, a 175m container ship of Liberia. The Captain agreed to take a live giraffe as cargo, which then gave us timeframes and schedules to work towards. The ship was leaving from Melbourne in early November, and would take about nine days to reach Lyttleton near Christchurch.

With travel time, Mabuti would need to be in a crate for two weeks. While the logistics team started to organize trucks, cranes and ships, my focus was squarely on Mabuti.

Giraffe training

Mabuti was 14 months old, and growing fast. We were now getting information from the Dept of Primary Industries in NZ, about what sort of pre-transfer quarantine protocols we would need to comply with in order for them to approve a live giraffe entering the countr

y. New Zealand takes quarantine extremely seriously, and the list of boxes we had to tick was exhaustive. Basically, we had to prove Mabuti didn’t have any internal or external parasites. And to prove this, we would have to get our hands on him.

We separated Mabuti from the herd, and started to condition him to walk into our giraffe crush. Over several weeks, we would walk him into the crush every day, and reward him heavily for doing so. Once he seemed comfortable, we co-ordinated a procedure with Senior Veterinarian Ian Smith. Mabuti was locked into the crush, and we performed the tasks that NZ quarantine required. We took blood samples, administered various treatments, and undertook a close physical examination of his body. Mabuti handled this experience extremely well, and watching him tolerate this intensive process was very reassuring for me.

On to the next stage: conditioning Mabuti to walk into his transport crate. The crate we used was large and made of hardwood, standing four metres tall and weighing more than 2000kgs.  It can take a lot of training and time for a giraffe to willingly walk into confined areas, so it was important we took the time to make Mabuti feel comfortable. He was given a lot of positive reinforcement and quickly learned that if he walked into his crate, he’d be rewarded with his favourite treats: apples, carrots and lots of beautiful browse. Within a couple of weeks, Mabuti was happily entering his crate and standing in there for lengths of time.

Loading day looms

With his training going well and departure date approaching, we had to start planning the most important part of the operation: loading day. On the day of departure, Mabuti would need to be secured into his crate, which meant having to close the big, heavy door and secure it with him comfortably standing inside. This may sound simple, but loading a huge, spectacularly proportioned animal like giraffe, meant everything had to be perfect.

If Mabuti sensed the gate closing and reacted, everything would be over. The success of this transfer was relying squarely on that one door being closed quickly and safely. We assembled our small giraffe loading team, allocated our roles, and then every day for several weeks, rehearsed this maneuver right up until the day of departure. In an operation this large, there was absolutely no room for error.

Before we knew it, loading day had arrived. The routine was the same as any other day except for one thing. Today, he was actually being locked in! We took our positions, and called Mabuti in. From my position within our giraffe loading facility, I heard his footsteps coming closer, closer, closer. This was it.


With a flurry of soft clangs and bolts locking, Mabuti was suddenly secured inside. It had taken all of 7.5 seconds, but gone exceptionally well! All the rehearsing had paid off. Mabuti seemed surprised, but beautifully calm. We spent time triple checking everything, and organizing his food. It was now time for Mabuti to leave Monarto forever.

The transfer

A large crane arrived on the scene, and Mabuti’s crate was lifted onto a truck. We said goodbye to everyone, and departed for Melbourne. Myself and Ian were going to accompany Mabuti every step of the way to his new home. Giraffe normally do travel well on the road, and we stopped a few times to check on him and top up his food. He did seem a little surprised when we crossed Melbourne’s West Gate Bridge, but overall going really well.

Once we arrived to Melbourne’s shipping yards, Mabuti was escorted through to the dock and we had our first g

limpse of the ANL Elanora.  The size of the cranes at these shipyards was staggering, but I was relieved to see the crane driver lifting Mabuti was very gentle. He was obviously aware Mabuti was very special and unique cargo!

Mabuti’s crate was positioned on the deck, surrounded by other containers. Sitting lower on the ship meant he’d be less likely to suffer from the exaggerated movement of the ship rolling on the ocean. Ian and I did one last check to ensure everything was in order, Mabuti seemed calm but curious. I prepared some carrots and apples, climbed the ladder and poked my head into his crate. He seemed pleased to see me and was more than happy to take some tasty treats. As long as he had positive contact with me and he felt safe and secure in his crate, then whatever happened outside didn’t matter.

On the boat

The ship departed during the night, and by first light we were already well out at sea. In the morning Ian and myself checked on how Mabuti was going, it was quite noisy where he was positioned and he seemed slightly irritated. He was happy to take some apples and carrots from us, but the noise was a little concerning.

During the first day at sea, I spent a quite a bit of time with Mabuti. I wanted to make sure he was comfortable and re

assured. I would talk to him and tell him he was safe, and while he couldn’t understand my words, I’d hoped he’d understand my tone. I was sure he knew I was the one who locked him in the box, but he didn’t seem to harbor any resentment. We were on this voyage together, and I think he understood that.

Days at sea

The days at sea rolled on. Myself and Ian formed a routine where we would go and check on Mabuti, give him fresh food and water, and spend time with him. Ian and I have worked together for more than 15 years on many giraffe transfers, but this experience was totally new to both of us. It was an incredibly unique professional opportunity, but we both felt the gravity of the situation. We were responsible for the welfare of a living, breathing, spectacular wild animal, on a ship, with no land in sight.

I didn’t sleep much most nights. I would feel the movement of the ship and picture how Mabuti was handling it in his crate. I imagined he would be tired and confused, but every day he would greet me looking bright, alert and happy. His resilience was impressive. He had enough room to sit down and stand up inside his crate, which was very important. Before long it struck me, I thought I was the one who had to help Mabuti through this journey, but he was helping me as much as I was helping him. His strength of character was shining through, we really were on this journey together.

The arrival

Finally, we arrived in New Zealand! Mabuti was smoothly transferred from ship to truck, and off we went to Orana Wildlife Park.  Mabuti was craned for the final time into Orana’s quarantine yards, and his crate was plumbed into position. Finally, after 12 days, we could release him! All of the Orana staff assembled, and gave me the thumbs up to open his crate. I slid the reinforcing beams out, undid the bolts and opened the door with a flourish.

Nothing happened.

“Come on, Mabuti!”

He looked at his door but didn’t move. This was common giraffe behavior, the area was new and unknown to him and he’d want time to walk out. We were happy for him to take as much time as he wanted, but unluckily for us, it started to pour with rain. For the next eight hours, it fell in absolute sheets and the temperature plummeted. If Mabuti had any desire to walk out, it was washed away thanks to the rain. He stayed in for the whole day, looking at the rain falling outside. Eventually it got dark, and we left to get some sleep.

First day abroad, making friends

The next morning, Mabuti was still in his crate, but thankfully the weather had improved. The sun was shining, and everything looked brighter. We planned to introduce Mabuti to his new female friends, hoping the contact with other giraffe would be enough to entice him out of his crate. Orana has three female giraffe, all who can breed with Mabuti. Five-year-old Mdomo was brought through to meet Mabuti. She walked through to his yard, saw him, and froze. Another giraffe? In a box? What an unexpected sight! But soon her love of food took over, and she walked across to share some browse with her new companion. Mabuti was less boisterous than Mdomo, but this first contact with another giraffe was wonderfully positive for him. She managed to give him a few reassuring licks, and we could see a bond forming between the two of them.

Hours passed. Mdomo came into Mabuti’s yard several times, but he wouldn’t leave the crate. Finally, I went to grab a quick bite to eat, came back, and his crate was empty!! I looked across his yard, and there he was, all four hooves firmly on New Zealand soil for the first time. He looked a little bewildered, but him leaving his crate was (almost) the last, momentous step he had to take on this journey. He was now welcome to join the rest of the herd.

Mdomo nudged Mabuti and they walked through the Orana Giraffe house, into the spacious and well-grassed habitat. The other females were waiting, and sniffed him cautiously but seemed to welcome him. Mabuti was finally in his new home, with his new females. The four giraffe started to walk away together.

But, what do I do now? Do I say goodbye? Would he say goodbye to me?

Many people may have read a book called “The Life of Pi”, by Yann Martel. In it, a young boy finds himself stuck on a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean, with a tiger called Richard Parker as his only companion. The book focuses on both of their struggles to stay alive, with Pi facing the extra challenge of trying to avoid being eaten by Richard Parker. The two aren’t friends, and the danger that Pi faces from sharing a boat with the tiger is very real. But eventually the lifeboat reaches land, they are saved, and Richard Parker jumps off the boat and runs off towards the forest. But at this very moment, Pi longed for one thing. He longed for Richard Parker to stop, and look back at him. Not because they were friends, because they weren’t. But Pi wanted Richard Parker to look back at him, to simply acknowledge that they had been through something extraordinary together. But Richard Parker doesn’t stop. He doesn’t give Pi the look he yearned for. He runs off into the forest, never to be seen again.

I was thinking all of this, watching Mabuti walk off with his females. And I thought to myself, he is walking away now, but will he look back at me? Will he say goodbye? We had certainly been through something extraordinary together, but now that he is here, faced with a new life, will he acknowledge what we went through? Will he look back?

And then I thought to myself, you know what? He doesn’t need to. My job was to bring this giraffe 3000kms across roads and oceans, to give him a new life, and I’ve done that. I’m happy with that. He is happy, healthy, and very keen to explore his new home with his new female giraffe. He doesn’t need to stop and look at me, he doesn’t need to do anything except exactly what he is doing now. He is here, and my job is done. I’m watching Mabuti walk away, and I tell myself, that I’m content.

And then, as he walked away, something unusual happened.

Mabuti stopped. He turned around.

He looked at me.

I inhaled my breath sharply, and held it. I froze. I looked back at Mabuti. For a full five seconds he looked at me without blinking, and I looked back at him. My skin tingled.

Then, he sort of clicked back into reality, turned away sharply, and trotted off to catch up with his females. I breathed again.

It was time to go home.”


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