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For the last decade we have been trying to unravel the mystery of giraffe taxonomy and their conservation status. Although I have a wildlife ecology background, the thought of taxonomy brings up images of elderly gentlemen in white lab coats bent over sterile benchtops in a silent lab teasing their way through bones and measuring the minutiae with callipers. But times have changed and luckily I have been able to join the new wave of modern-day scientists in helping to solve a modern-day wildlife mystery.

Fighting giraffes in Ithala Game Reserve, northern KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. (Photo Credit: Luca Galuzzi)

Fighting giraffes in Ithala Game Reserve, northern KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. (Photo Credit: Luca Galuzzi)

Fortunately it takes all sorts of people to make things happen. We at the Giraffe Conservation Foundation (GCF) have been at the forefront of giraffe conservation efforts across the African continent for the past five years, and for ten years before that I was working towards this goal in my individual capacity. In partnership with BiK-F Loewe at the Senckenberg Museum in Frankfurt, Germany, we are currently slowly unravelling giraffe taxonomy to provide information for conservation, management and policy decisions for giraffe conservation across Africa.

Giraffe taxonomy has been confusing and sometimes contradictory for nearly 250 years. Currently one species, Giraffa camelopardalis, and nine subspecies are recognized. Over the last few years some researchers have proposed that as many as eight of these subspecies should be recognized as distinct species, but most of these suggestions have been dismissed as ‘folklore science.’ However, our recent efforts are providing valuable insight into the evolutionary history of the species and may soon settle the debate – so stay tuned!

A West African Giraffe, Koure, Niger. (Image Credit: Roland H. / Flickr)

A West African Giraffe, Koure, Niger. (Image Credit: Roland H. / Flickr)

The giraffe is currently classified on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List as a species of ‘least concern.’ Several subspecies are at greater risk than the species as a whole, but it is unusual for subspecies to achieve a higher conservation status than the species itself. In 2008 and 2010, GCF facilitated the listing of two giraffe subspecies as ‘endangered’: the West African giraffe (G. c. peralta) and Rothschild’s giraffe (G. c. rothschildi).

Since then, the Government of Niger, home to the last remaining West African giraffe, developed the first-ever national giraffe conservation strategy of any African country. Most recently, GCF signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Uganda Wildlife Authority to provide conservation advice and support to Uganda’s Rothschild’s giraffe populations.

If our findings conclude that giraffe are indeed one species, the challenges facing different subspecies may continue to be masked. However, even as a single species, giraffe are obviously in trouble. In comparison with another charismatic mega-herbivores, the 500,000 remaining African elephants vastly outnumber the less than 80,000 remaining giraffe. Yet the elephant’s Red List designation as ‘vulnerable’ garners it massive global attention, while giraffe conservation remains largely underfunded and unknown.

Masai giraffe in the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden. (Image Credit: Greg Hume)

Masai giraffe in the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden. (Image Credit: Greg Hume)

Much remains to be done to safeguard a future for wild giraffe in Africa. Our limited knowledge regarding the current status of the species and its various subspecies poses a threat to their long-term sustainability. At the continental level, GCF’s Africa-wide assessment project works to evaluate the status of all giraffe populations throughout Africa so as to inform giraffe conservation and management.

The GCF collaborates with African governments, NGOs, universities, and researchers to gather demographic data across the range of the species. The end goal with the project is to publish a comprehensive analysis of census and anecdotal data on the giraffe, including individual country profiles, conservation recommendations, and recommendations for future research.

To find out more about giraffe conservation in Africa, visit the GCF website www.giraffeconservation.org.

(This article originally appeared on GCF via Travel News Namibia. It has been reprinted here with permission.)

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