This press release was written by Billy Dodson, Patron of the Giraffe Conservation Foundation
“To see a giraffe in the cool highlands, with the purple-red African sun setting behind its tall, slim outline, is one of man’s great visual experiences. Or to travel through the chill of an African dawn, and see the graceful outline of a herd of giraffes moving across the savanna, gives one a feeling of the world when it was new … “ Bradley Smith, The Life of the Giraffe, 1972
June 21st 2015 has been designated the day on which the wildlife aficionados of this planet celebrate the giraffe, one of Africa’s most beautiful denizens and iconic symbols. This acknowledgment is, in my estimation, long overdue. The giraffe is unheralded and generally taken for granted, but as Mr. Smith so elegantly observes in the above quote … it’s difficult to imagine the impeccable, colorful and symbolic African landscape of our dreams without our elevated friends punctuating the view. But there is a hard reality that accompanies World Giraffe Day. And it is this: when an animal species is assigned its own day of special recognition, that’s a compelling indicator that its future is, at best, uncertain and, at worst, in serious doubt. Owing to the efforts of the Giraffe Conservation Foundation, the species now has its own dedicated day in the sun.
The giraffe may be an unpretentious and unassuming creature, but it is every bit as representative of its troubled continent as its more glorified cohabitants. The giraffe may never garner the love and attention showered on elephants and big cats, but that doesn’t mean they are less deserving. The elephants touch us with their extraordinary intelligence and deep devotion to family. The cats enthrall us with their strength and majesty. Giraffes are quiet, shy and, despite their towering stature, unobtrusive. They may be the world’s tallest animals, but they maintain a low profile. And that’s why most people don’t realize that their numbers have declined at a rate that is commensurate with or greater than Africa’s more celebrated species.
State of the Species
Giraffes have few natural enemies. Lions do hunt them from time to time and have a fairly high success rate in some parts of the continent. But reaching a giraffe’s hindquarters is a hell of a stretch, and the very act of trying leaves the lion’s underside vulnerable to powerful, potentially fatal, kicks. The decision to prey on a giraffe is not one to be taken lightly, and for that reason giraffes are not always the preferred target. Hyenas, ever the opportunists, have also been known to hunt them. They will certainly take down a young giraffe if circumstances are in their favor. But Africa’s other predators tend to leave them in peace. So how is it, that despite the relative paucity of natural enemies, giraffe numbers have decreased by over 40% in the past fifteen years? This shocking reduction in population is directly attributable to the relentless encroachment of humans on their traditional ranges and, to a lesser extent, the mindless scourges of illegal hunting and poaching. Here’s a demographic summation of the nine subspecies:
Angolan giraffe – Estimated at fewer than 15,000. Probably extinct in Angola, its range includes most of Namibia and central Botswana. Ongoing research is expected to (a) confirm the distribution, and (b) define the extent of the genetic differences between the Angolan and South African giraffes. Extralimital populations (those outside the natural range) have been translocated to South Africa and probably to Zimbabwe and Botswana as well.
Kordofan giraffe – Fewer than 2,000. The Kordofan giraffe’s range encompasses some of Africa’s most hostile areas: southern Chad, Central African Republic, northern Cameroon, the northern Democratic Republic of the Congo and probably South Sudan.
Nubian giraffe – Fewer than 650. 200 or so likely remain in western Ethiopia, and possibly 450 or less in South Sudan.
South African (or Cape) giraffe – Fewer than 17,000. Their range includes the northern part of South Africa, southern Botswana and southern Zimbabwe. There is currently an initiative underway that would re-introduce this subspecies to Mozambique. Extralimital translocations have occurred in Angola, Senegal and Zambia.
West African giraffe – Population has risen from about 50 in the late 1990s to about 400 today. This giraffe is only found in a tiny corner of southern Niger, sharing its living space with villagers in an area where no other large animals exist. Fortunately, the government of Niger is now fully committed to the protection of this subspecies. The West African giraffe was classified as endangered and placed on the IUCN Red List in 2008.
Reticulated giraffe – Fewer than 4,700. This exquisitely patterned animal has been decimated in the past two decades, with its total population reduced by over 80%. Current range includes northeastern Kenya, southern Somalia and possibly southern Ethiopia.
Rothschild’s giraffe – Fewer than 1,100 in the wild. Resident in northern Uganda and west central Kenya. The Rothschild’s giraffe was declared endangered and placed on the IUCN Red List in 2010.
Thornicroft’s giraffe – Fewer than 550. Resides exclusively in the South Luangwa Valley of Zambia and is geographically separated from any other giraffe by at least 400 kilometers. However, recent research appears to indicate that the subspecies is not as genetically distinct as previously assumed. Its taxonomy must be carefully reviewed to determine if it should be categorized with the Masai giraffe or if it remains ‘split’ on ecological grounds.
Masai (or Kilimanjaro) giraffe – Approximately 37,000, the healthiest population of any subspecies. Its range encompasses central and southern Kenya, Tanzania and parts of Rwanda (extralimital population).
The IUCN listing of giraffes as a species in their “least concern” category (despite the placement of two subspecies on the Red List) indicates an urgent need for reassessment. The precipitous 40% decline in giraffe populations should be disconcerting to anyone with an interest in conservation. At one time in the not so distant past, giraffes were resident in almost every part of sub-Saharan Africa and numbered more than a million animals. No more. They are now confined to isolated areas in just a few countries. Fortunately for the species, the much needed re-evaluation has been initiated and is well underway. The research and analysis is being conducted by the IUCN SSC Giraffe & Okapi Specialist Group with support and assistance from the GCF.
The Way Ahead
The first order of business is to acquire a more precise understanding of the health of the species. But even without additional study, the following two statements are irrefutable … (1) giraffe numbers are in deep decline, and (2) the primary reason for that decline is human pressure. The GCF is leading the way in defining the current state of affairs. Individual country profiles are in development for each nation with a giraffe population. These profiles incorporate historical data, existing research results, anecdotal information and every other scrap of data that might help complete the puzzle. Armed with this data, the GCF will be better equipped to support the sustainment of current giraffe populations and expand habitat to accommodate what will hopefully, eventually be a numerically healthy population. The GCF is also engaged in a number of conservation projects throughout giraffe range states; study subjects include demographics, conservation management, ecology, genetics/taxonomy, compatibility and co-existence with human populations, environmental education and much more. The intent is to expand the aggregate knowledge of the challenges to the species, and, using that knowledge as a foundation, develop and execute a comprehensive strategy for reversal of the current negative trends.
Why The Fight is Critical
There is a good deal of justified hand-wringing over the plight of elephants. I often see them referred to as “gentle giants”. But anyone who has ever crossed paths with a musth bull or edged a little too close to a mother elephant with calf underfoot would of necessity concede that elephants are not gentle all the time. Likewise the lion. There are many retribution killings against the great cats because of their raids on livestock in areas where human settlement overlaps traditional wildlife territories. And under the right circumstances, they can and will destroy human life. But giraffes very rarely invade crops or attack livestock. They are notoriously peaceful … not only would they never threaten humans in an aggressive way, they are not in the business of threatening any living thing.
Despite isolated instances of success in the war to preserve these animals, the decline of the giraffe is proceeding steadily. As with the elephants and lions, this is yet another example of how the mighty continue to fall. The higher profile species have a powerful network of NGO marketing and social media support … and the efforts to save them are well documented and widely publicized. But it’s rare to pick up a magazine or newspaper and read an article about human-giraffe conflict, or to see any hard statistics on the numbers of giraffe remaining in a given African reserve.
In the late 1990s ABC news correspondent Lynn Sherr wrote an exquisite little book called “Tall Blondes”, a loving tribute to her favorite of all animals. In one passage, she notes that the giraffe’s “ability to accommodate modern civilization may be explained by their innate curiosity and friendliness. Giraffes just seem to like people, and with their peaceful nature, seem perfectly willing to let us share their planet while they explore what we’ve done to it.” Lynn’s assessment is accurate, but the giraffe’s tolerance of humanity may be its undoing. Direct, sustained contact with people works to the detriment of these animals 100% of the time. Giraffes may be willing to share their planet with us, but we’ve demonstrated no inclination to reciprocate.
In many respects, Africa represents the last vestige of wilderness on earth. While the wildlife of other continents has been destroyed or effectively imprisoned, pieces of Africa remain true bastions of nature – pristine, beautiful and primordial – as it was designed to be. Its sweeping landscapes comprehend the gamut, from deep rain forest to snow-capped peaks to arid desert. The breadth of Africa’s animal species is compelling testimony to life’s ability to adjust and thrive. But there is a limit to the ability of animals to adapt, and in this case, live peacefully in close proximity to humankind. And it is this conflict, more than any other, that has decimated all nine subspecies of giraffe over the past century.
I once read in a Stephen Jay Gould essay that 99.9% of all species that have ever lived are now extinct. In other words, the curtain will one day fall naturally on the giraffe, as it will for homo sapiens and every other form of life. The cycle must and will continue, as one species gives way to make room for another. But it is an anomaly, a crime against nature, for one species to bear complete responsibility for the unnecessary and unjustified eradication of another. This is particularly true in the case of the giraffe, which, despite its surpassing grace and elegant beauty, is defenseless against our exploding numbers and burgeoning settlements. It’s past time for the pendulum to swing the other way, and it’s up to us, the animal lovers and conservationists of the world, to make that happen.
And here’s the cool part. We can do it. The numbers as depicted above are discouraging, to be sure. But the movement to counter the losses is becoming a groundswell and its momentum has begun to mushroom. It is true that we have the collective power to destroy, but we also possess the intelligence and ingenuity to sustain these magnificent animals. At this point it is a simple matter of will. We must develop the determination and perseverance to ensure a viable future for the world’s most statuesque animals. It is therefore incumbent on us all to act immediately to broadcast the conservation message and save giraffes from further habitat loss and eventual extinction.
So as we celebrate these spectacularly patterned, highly threatened emblems of Africa on this auspicious day, we should take some comfort in knowing that there are capable people in emerging organizations like the GCF who are committed to the protection of the species. And let us dedicate our own efforts to the preservation and propagation of giraffes, and resolve to take whatever actions are necessary – collectively and individually – to preserve this most beautiful and implausible of animal species.
“The sight of a herd of giraffes walking leisurely across an open piece of ground, or feeding through a country of scattered trees and bush, is one which, once seen, must ever linger in the memory; for there is something about the appearance of some few of the largest animals still extant upon the earth which stirs the imagination as the sight of smaller but more beautiful animals can never do.” Frederick Selous, 1908