Compared to the elephant and the rhino, two of Africa’s most iconic and endangered animals, the giraffe is still something of a mystery. According to Dr. Julian Fennessy, Executive Director and Conservation Scientist for the Giraffe Conservation Foundation (GCF), giraffe have yet to benefit from the in-depth, long-term studies of the continent’s more prominent megafauna.
“We need more conservation research,” said Dr. Fennessy in an interview with Planet Experts. “There’s been 20-30 years of regular studies of elephant in the wild. The longest continuous study of giraffe has probably been four or five years. There’s such a paucity of information.”
This is why giraffe intelligence and social behavior is still up for debate. The details have yet to be filled in. “This is something that I hope people in the world listen to and go, ‘Wow, that would be a cool thing to study. And from there we can learn more and more,” said Fennessy. “We can’t really say whether giraffes are rocket scientists or not but we definitely know that they have much more to them.”
For now, the giraffe remains Africa’s “forgotten giant,” a curious creature whose unmistakable profile is swiftly disappearing.
The world’s tallest mammal, which once inhabited ecosystems throughout the African continent, is now extinct in at least seven countries. Hunted for its meat by the Lord’s Resistance Army in the DRC, its habitat fragmented by human development across Africa, overall giraffe numbers have shrunk from an estimated one million at the beginning of the 20th century to 140,000 in the late ‘90s and to less than 80,000 today.
Even that figure is deceptive, as the giraffe’s nine subspecies are not equally protected. There are approximately 1,100 Rothschild’s giraffe, less than 650 Nubian giraffe and about 400 West African Giraffe left in the wild. (GCF has a full breakdown of each subspecies’ range and markings here.)
It is expected that most if not all subspecies of giraffe will appear on the IUCN Red List by mid-2016.
Spreading Giraffe Awareness Across Africa
For nearly two decades, Dr. Julian Fennessy has worked in species and habitat ecology, conservation and land management across Africa and Australia. He helped established and co-chairs the IUCN Species Survival Commission (SSC) Giraffe and Okapi Specialist Group since 2013 and is a Conservation Advisor for the EAZA Giraffe EEP.
Dr. Fennessy first came to South Africa as an exchange student in 1991. It wasn’t long before he fell in love with the continent and, after finishing his studies back in Australia, he eventually returned to work in Namibia. He chose to do his PhD on giraffe when he “realized there was so little done on these species. We hear so much about elephants, lions, and all other big animals out there…” said Fennessy. “I really think the bottom line is, no one stuck their neck out for giraffe, so to speak. It was timely that someone came, and it just seemed to fall into my lap.”
The GCF was formed about seven years ago when a donor asked Fennessy if other large international conservation donors were raising money for giraffe-related issues. At the time, no direct programs for giraffe conservation had been established by these organizations and Fennessy had already been thinking about pursuing such a project.
Today, the GCF is the leading advocate for giraffe conservation in the world. The Foundation has spearheaded projects throughout Africa: Putting satellite collars on giraffe in Ethiopia with the African Parks Network; supporting the translocation of endangered Rothschild’s giraffe in Uganda; and developing a new national strategy for giraffe with the government of Niger. In Namibia, the GCF raises awareness on the giraffe’s relationship to the local environment by distributing educational material and works closely with the Community-Based Natural Resource Management Program (CBNRM) to build long-term conservation efforts in the country’s northwestern region.
One of the most important roles of the GCF, says Fennessy, is just raising awareness about the plight of giraffe in Africa. “If you ask many people around the world, they really have no clue about giraffe––apart from ‘they’re lovely,’ ‘they’re the tallest animal’ and they’re on almost every sort of baby goods around the world,” said Fennessy. “But the bottom line is, few know that their numbers are plummeting. Some populations are amongst the most endangered large mammals on the planet.”
The quest to save giraffe from extinction goes beyond the desire to prevent one more species from being lost forever. In some regions, their presence is essential to maintaining the diversity of plants as well as wildlife.
“If you look at elephants,” said Fennessy, “they are habitat-changers, they open up landscapes. And giraffe do this on a finer scale, just like black rhino do. So their role in the environment is also critical, it’s not just an aesthetically pretty animal to see. The biggest thing for all wildlife, whether it is in Africa, Australia or the U.S., is habitat, and how we can conserve it and protect it before it’s too late.”
Some areas, by necessity, will be smaller or fragmented, he acknowledged, but there are different types of management regimes that can be implemented to keep populations healthy. But that requires the participation and cooperation of all stakeholders including governments, NGOs, private landowners and importantly, communities.
The GCF initially focused on science, but over the last couple years it’s realized that research alone is not conservation. “We need to get on the ground,” said Fennessy, “we need to work with local people, governments and partners to make a difference.”
To that end, the GCF also raises funds for organizations and individuals undertaking giraffe-related conservation projects across the continent. In Niger, the Foundation recently partnered with the local giraffe guide association to provide the guides with new uniforms, targeted giraffe signage, monitoring tools and equipment and an upgraded headquarters. In Zambia they have provided ongoing support to de-snaring initiatives in and around the range of the Thornicroft’s giraffe (approximately 550 individuals remain in the wild). In southern Kenya, the GCF is supporting North Carolina State University and the Maasai community on a new environmental education pilot program to help the community see the benefit of giraffe conservation. Fennessy hopes that this and GCF’s other work in the region will expand in the next year, resulting in a GCF East Africa coordinator based in other conservation networks in the region.
The Foundation has also partnered with institutions such as San Diego Global, Dartmouth College and the Uganda Wildlife Authority.
“What we realized was that we have a great technical capacity that no others have for giraffe,” said Fennessy, to channel increasing financial support to other giraffe efforts and build up the giraffe conservation network. “It’s not all about us, it’s about getting giraffe conservation better known, better understood and putting activities in place.”
Just in time for the second World Giraffe Day on June 21, Operation Twiga (“twiga” is the Swahili word for giraffe) is the brainchild of GCF and was developed in partnership with the Ugandan Wildlife Authority to save the endangered Rothschild’s giraffe in the country.
“There were former areas in the country where giraffe used to live,” said Fennessy, “and we said, how about we raise awareness and support to help reintroduce giraffe into these areas? So they got super excited, we got excited, and we hope everyone around the world is going to become excited with us and help increase their range and the distribution, which in turn will hopefully lead to an increase of Rothschild’s giraffe in the wild. Saving giraffe – it seems simple!”
How You Can Celebrate World Giraffe Day
The best way to support giraffe conservation is to make a donation to the Giraffe Conservation Foundation, but that’s far from the only way. Get on social media and spread the word about giraffe, or visit your local zoo, many of which will be celebrating World Giraffe Day from the 20th to the 22nd. Visit the GCF website for more information or contact them at [email protected].
“We can all work together and make a difference,” said Fennessy, “not just for elephants and rhinos, which is really important, but also for the tallest animal in the world. It’d be sad to see that lost in our lifetime.”
Ultimately, Dr. Fennessy has faith that it’s not too late. “There’s a fine line between being brave and stupid,” he admitted. “We don’t get paid all the money in the world, but you do it because you believe. And I think we can really save giraffe before it’s too late.”