Pardon the pun, but it’s time to stick our necks out for giraffes. We have mistakenly taken the world’s tallest mammal for granted, fretting far more about other beloved animals such as rhinos, elephants and great apes.
But now it seems that all is not well in giraffe-land, with reports emerging that they may be staring extinction in the face.
Why? For starters, thanks to modern molecular genetics, we have just realised that what we thought was one species of giraffe is in fact four, split into between seven and nine distinct subspecies. That’s a lot more biodiversity to worry about.
Even more disturbing is the fact that giraffe populations are collapsing. Where once they roamed widely across Africa’s savannas and woodlands, they now occupy less than half of the real estate they did a century ago.
Among the most imperilled is the West African giraffe, a subspecies now found only in Niger. It dwindled to just 50 individuals in the 1990s, and was only saved by desperate last-ditch efforts from conservationists and the Niger government.
As a result of these sharp declines, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature recently changed giraffes’ overall conservation status from “Least Concern” to “Vulnerable”. In biological terms, that’s like a ship’s pilot suddenly bellowing “iceberg dead ahead!”
Why are giraffes declining so abruptly? One reason is that they reproduce slowly, as might be expected of a big animal that formerly had to contend only with occasional attacks by lions, hyenas and tribal hunters, and as a result is not well adapted to our hostile modern world.
Giraffes today are being hit by much more than traditional enemies. According to the United Nations, Africa’s population of 1.1 billion people is growing so fast that it could quadruple this century. These extra people are using lots more land for farming, livestock and burgeoning cities.
Beyond this, Africa has become a feeding ground for foreign corporations, especially big mining firms from China, Australia and elsewhere. To export bulk commodities such as iron, copper and aluminium ore, China in particular has gone on a frenzy of road, railway and port building.
Fuelled by a flood of foreign currency, Africa’s infrastructure is booming. A total of 33 “development corridors” – centred around ambitious highway and rail networks – have been proposed or are under active construction. Our research shows that these projects would total more than 53,000km in length, crisscrossing the continent and opening up vast expanses of remote, biologically rich ecosystems to new development pressures.
Meanwhile, giraffes are struggling to cope with poachers armed with powerful automatic rifles rather than customary weapons such as spears. As shown in this poignant video, giraffes are commonly killed merely for their tails, which are valued as a status symbol and dowry gift by some African cultures.
Time to act
For a group of species about which we had been largely complacent, the sudden shift to “Vulnerable” status for giraffes is a red flag telling us it’s time for action.
Giraffes’ sweeping decline reflects a much wider trend in wildlife populations. A recent WWF report forecasts that we are on track to lose two-thirds of all individual birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians and fish on Earth by 2020. Species in tropical nations are doing especially poorly.
What can we do? A critical first step is to help African nations develop their natural resources and economies in ways that don’t decimate nature. This is an urgent challenge that hinges on improving land-use planning, governance and protection of nature reserves and imperilled wildlife.
We can also use emerging technologies to help us. For example, it is now possible to monitor illegal deforestation, road-building and other illicit activities virtually in real time, thanks to remarkable advances in satellites, drones, computing and crowdsourcing.
What’s more, affordable automatic cameras are being widely used to monitor the status of wildlife populations. These are particularly useful for giraffes, which have individual mottling patterns as distinctive as human fingerprints.
But all the technology in the world won’t save wildlife if we don’t address the fundamental drivers of Africa’s plight: its booming population and desperate needs for equitable social and sustainable development.
Ignoring these basic needs while tackling poaching and illegal road-building is akin to plugging the holes in a dam while ignoring the rising flood-waters that threaten to spill over its top.
We have to redouble our efforts, pushing for conservation and more sustainable societies all at once – plugging the holes while at the same time building the dam higher.
For the stately giraffe and the rest of Africa’s declining wildlife, it’s time for us to stand tall – or else wave goodbye.
An American trophy hunter has kicked off another social media furore after defending a recent giraffe kill in South Africa by claiming they were “very dangerous animals”. In one sense she is right – giraffes are big and strong and you certainly wouldn’t want one kicking you. But attacks on humans are very rare.
A more relevant question is whether hunting is a key threat to giraffes.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List assessment does not list legal hunting as a threatening process at all. However illegal hunting for meat and trophies is listed as threatening as it reduces the effective size of their protected areas and, if allowed to proceed unchecked, can cause the collapse of wildlife populations. Giraffes are popular among bushmeat poachers because of their size, high meat yield and the ease with which they can be hunted.
The giraffe is currently listed as “least concern” on the IUCN Red List, but this doesn’t present the full picture. Back in 1999 wildlife expert Rod East estimated there were 140,000 in Africa – today the Giraffe Conservation Foundation estimates there are only 80,000 left. Such a rapid decline suggests they may soon qualify as being vulnerable to extinction.
But why does a 40% drop in giraffe numbers not resonate worldwide? After all, everyone knows African elephants are threatened yet there are still 500,000 left in the world. So why is the giraffe being ignored?
Normally, it is the uncharismatic species that decline without much public sympathy, but that doesn’t apply here. Giraffes are one of the megastars of the African savannah. Tourists love them. Children who have never been to Africa know what a giraffe looks like. It is the world’s tallest animal despite having the same number of bones in its neck as we do. It is almost comical in appearance with its orange dappled pyjama onesie – although when you feel it, giraffe skin is thick and tough.
A drive through a well-managed protected area, such as Kruger National Park in South Africa, gives the impression that both elephants and giraffes are secure. You can sit at a waterhole and watch elephants cavorting in the water while a lone giraffe browses peacefully on the acacias nearby. In Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park I once saw 32 giraffes without even turning my head. It could be that this familiarity has blinded society to the decline of the species, in addition to a lack of well-publicised trafficking busts that occurs with elephant ivory or rhino horn.
But the rapid decline of giraffes isn’t the only story – because in southern Africa, populations are increasing. A major reason for this increase has been the development of wildlife ranches and the reintroduction and protection of giraffes on those lands. There are significant numbers on wildlife ranches in South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, and a recent study estimated that 23,000 giraffes occupy such lands in Namibia.
Ironically, many of those ranches only developed because there was potential for deriving income from trophy hunting, including giraffes. Elsewhere, though, other sub-species are faring far worse. The reticulated giraffe from Somalia, Kenya and Ethiopia has been reduced to just 5,000 individuals through illegal poaching and war. The West African giraffe in Niger had only 50 animals in the mid-1990s, but robust environmental protection has resulted in an increase to around 400 today.
The taxonomy of giraffes is currently being studied, and it may be that the dozen or so giraffe sub-species are elevated to distinct species, which would totally reform their conservation status assessments.
It seems clear that to protect giraffes, we need to prevent both habitat loss and illegal hunting. These targets can be achieved through adequate management of protected area estates and through the creation of incentives for conservation on lands outside of protected areas. Trophy hunting contributes to both in some countries by generating income from and for wildlife.
The controversy over the killing of Cecil the lion highlights how much is needed to make sure legal hunting industries are adequately managed. However, until an alternative to the income from trophy hunting is found, the answer lies not in banning the practice or on clamping down on trophy imports, but in helping African countries manage the industry better.