Conservationists Sound Alarm on Plummeting Giraffe Numbers

Pending US Endangered Species Act listing could support recovery efforts, say advocates

Picture an animal enrobed in a fiery, jigsaw-patterned coat. A creature of such majestic height that it towers amongst the trees. As your eyes make their way up its long neck that appears to defy gravity, you find crowned atop its head two Seussian, horn-like protrusions framing dark, curious eyes fanned by lashes. In its truest sense, the giraffe fits the description of a creature plucked from the pages of a fantastical story. Even its species name, Giraffa camelopardalis, comes from the ancient Greek belief that the giraffe is a peculiar camel wearing the coat of a leopard. Meanwhile, the Japanese word for giraffe and unicorn are one and the same.

photo of giraffe Photo by Julian Fennesy Nubian giraffe in Uganda. An estimated 2,645 Nubian giraffes remain in the wild.

Today, we continue to walk the Earth with these awe-inspiring creatures, which range across much of Africa. But giraffes are facing what many are calling a ‘silent extinction.’ Public awareness and global action is critically due. “These gentle giants have been overlooked,” appeals Sir David Attenborough in BBC’s “Story of Life” documentary series aired in late 2016, urging that “time is running out.”

As word begins to get out about the difficulty giraffes are facing, a small, committed cohort are fighting for the species. They are working diligently in the field to learn more about the animals and their populations, cooperating with governments to preserve land giraffes depend on, and collaborating with communities to conserve their wildlife. Meanwhile, others are championing for giraffes on the legal frontlines, advocating for further protections. In particular, wildlife advocates have called for greater protections at the international level, as well as domestic restrictions on trade in giraffe parts in the United States.

The sharp decline of giraffe numbers over the past three decades led to an official change in their conservation status in December 2016, when the giraffe was “uplisted” from Least Concern status to Vulnerable — more specifically, “Vulnerable to Extinction” in the wild — on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List. (Listings under the IUCN don’t come with specific protections, but provide valuable information about species’ status as well as attention to the threats they face.) In making the decision, the IUCN cited an ongoing population decline of 36 to 40 percent between 1985 and 2015. This represents a change from approximately 106,191 to 114,416 mature individuals in 1985 down to 68,293 in 2015. (It’s important to note that this population count is of mature individual giraffes, as giraffe reproduction is inherently slow to replace lost population. A long gestation period of 15 months typically yields only one calf, and those calves are vulnerable to predation by wild dogs, hyenas, leopards, and lions. Approximately 50 to 75 percent of all young giraffes perish due to predation, one of the highest mortality rates among animals.)

Giraffes’ updated IUCN conservation listing is “a wake-up call,” says Tanya Sanerib, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Giraffe scientists and conservation NGOs are all working to raise awareness of the giraffe crisis and prevent it.”

One of these efforts is currently playing out in the United States, where the giraffe is not currently protected by law. In April 2017, the Center for Biological Diversity, Humane Society International, The Humane Society of the United States, International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), and Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) filed a legal petition to protect giraffes under the US Endangered Species Act (ESA). An endangered listing under the ESA would come with a ban on most imports and sales of giraffe trophies, bone carvings, and other giraffe “products.” A listing would also send an urgent message to the world community to protect this majestic species. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service has not yet responded to the petition, though the 90-day period within which the agency is supposed to respond has passed.

“The Endangered Species Act is one of the most effective tools for species conservation,” Sanerib says. “Given the significant imports to the US of giraffe bones, bone carvings, skins, and trophies, the US is undeniably a part of the decline of giraffes and an ESA-listing would raise awareness about this fact and increase scrutiny of our imports.”

Aggregate giraffe populations are on a downward trend in Africa, but some of the nine giraffe subspecies are suffering worse than others. The Masai giraffe population, the tallest of the subspecies with a darker star-shaped pattern coat, halved between 1985 and 2015. The number of reticulated giraffes, which live in the horn of Africa and have a bright neatly-patterned coat, declined nearly 80 percent in the same period. Roughly 400 West African giraffe remain in Niger and Nubian giraffe number at only 650. Today, giraffes have become extirpated or locally extinct in at least seven African countries and have vanished from most of West Africa. It’s not all bad news, though: Certain populations, including ones in Tanzania and South Africa, are growing due to breeding for legal game hunting and tourism.

photo of giraffe Photo by Julian Fennesy An adult Angolan giraffe with two calves in Namibia. As giraffe numbers plummet across Africa,
conservationsts are working to stave off extinction for this vulnerable species.

Biologists have found that, unlike other species, giraffe will not associate or interbreed between subspecies. For example, in Kenya, three species coexist, the Masai, Reticulated, and Nubian giraffe, and though they may encounter one another they each maintain a unique genetic makeup and do not interbreed. Dr. Julian Fennessy comments that giraffe are “so much more unique than many other species out there that do interbreed and have viable offspring.”

This brings into focus that: While giraffe populations are plummeting, scientists are still making discoveries about giraffes. For example, giraffes are currently recognized as one species with nine subspecies, each visually distinguishable by their different coat patterns. This understanding, however, may be changing: Recent scientific analyses suggest that giraffes may instead be four or even up to nine distinct species. Kirstie Ruppert, who works on giraffe conservation in Kenya for San Diego Zoo Global, believes giraffes are finally gaining “heightened conservation attention” given these recent discoveries. She reminds us that this research “shines a light on how little we know about a species that is so iconic and how little we know relative to other big species.”

These genetic findings could be cause to separate the species taxonomically. Once separated, those species facing greater threats would merit protections under international law, including endangered or critically endangered listings on the IUCN Red List. In 2007, Dr. David Brown, a biologist who did an extensive genetic study on giraffe, said that “lumping all giraffes into one species obscures the reality that some kinds of giraffe are on the brink. Some of these populations number only a few hundred individuals and need immediate protection.” Ten years later, international protection is still lacking.

Changing their classification, however, won’t be easy. Should it happen, it will “be a very slow process and more work on classical taxonomy will be required before initiating this change,” says Stephanie Fennessy, co-director of the Giraffe Conservation Foundation.

So, what is ultimately causing the decline of giraffe populations? As with species the world over: human-created pressures. Giraffe declines across the continent are tied to to habitat loss, civil unrest, illegal hunting and poaching, and ecological changes (like those related to mining activity and climate change). In each country and region, the specific threats vary.

With respect to habitat, Kirstie Ruppert points to “the need for conservation partnerships, both in the private and public sectors to protect those large tracts of land, not just for giraffes, but also for the many African megafauna that really need it in order to survive.” Coexistence between humans and wildlife is a palpable issue in biodiverse regions across the globe. Giraffe are a species that do little to disrupt human livelihood in these regions and even still the “establishment of community conservancies [in Kenya] really has given a lot of hope for coexistence between pastoralist people in this region and wildlife,” Ruppert says.

In Uganda, there is a growing interest in oil exploration, right in the heart of giraffe range. As a preventative measure, GCF and the Uganda Wildlife Authority “translocated” or moved 18 Rothschild’s and Nubian giraffes across the Nile in 2016, to protect giraffes from the potential impacts of prospective oil mining.

In Kenya, an ongoing drought is posing a problem. No longer an issue reserved for polar bears living at the edge of the planet, climate change is now impacting giraffe as well by exacerbating drought conditions. Across Africa and other parts of the world, climate change impacts vegetation through desertification — a process by which fertile land becomes desert — negatively impacting people and wildlife alike. Kirstie Ruppert describes that “[This] past year Kenya really faced an extreme drought and is still in the midst of it.” She adds, “When [giraffes] face extreme drought in these places the regeneration of grass for livestock and for wildlife species is really compromised.” This not only impacts availability of food for wildlife, but also that for humans, and can lead communities to resort to hunting wildlife for bushmeat, as found by Ruppert and Derek Lee of the Wild Nature Institute. As well, with smaller ungulates perishing due to increased drought, lion predation increases on giraffe young. Ruppert states “climate change — at least, extreme drought and connecting that to climate change — is one of the most pressing challenges in this region that we’re facing on a daily basis.”

“Across central Africa and parts of eastern Africa poaching has been a really big threat in recent years,” says Dr. Julian Fennessy. In Kenya and Tanzania giraffes are experiencing dramatic increases in illegal killing for their meat as well as for trophies. These are regions in which giraffe numbers are already under considerable strain, and illegal hunting is emerging as a real threat to the species. TRAFFIC, a leading NGO working globally on the trade of wild animals and plants, is prioritizing giraffes in their investigative work and is planning “to carry out work on giraffe trade in parts of East Africa, in response to the rising number of reports we’ve encountered of giraffe parts in trade.” And though illegal hunting is becoming a greater issue, many advocates, including Tanya Sanerib of the Center for Biological Diversity, argue that legal hunting is also contributing to the decline of giraffes.

Legal trophy hunting for all species continues to give rise to heated debate in the conservation community regarding whether it is a viable conservation tool. “If well-managed, trophy hunting is a form of sustainable use that can provide direct income and benefits from wildlife resources to local communities,” says Dr Richard Thomas of TRAFFIC. The key term to question here is whether it is ‘well-managed.’ However, evidence is mounting against hunting as a conservation tool. Research suggests that little money made from big game hunting actually goes to local communities and the amount dedicated to conservation efforts itself is negligible. That same study found that trophy hunting makes up as little as 1.8 percent of tourism revenues across the continent. Growing evidence also suggests that legal trophy hunting can compromise the genetic health of a species and that it engenders illegal hunting and wildlife crime. (Read more about the debate on legal hunting as a conservation tool here.)

What conservationists agree on is that urgent action is needed for the protection of giraffes. Some advocates believe that halting the international trade in giraffe parts is a critical step in their protection. Currently, giraffes are not internationally protected by trade laws or by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). CITES regulates and restricts the international trade of threatened species; as giraffes are listed as Vulnerable, they just miss the mark to gain protection, despite the fact that some subspecies on the brink. “Giraffes are not protected under CITES and we know that the US is a significant importer of giraffe trophies,” says Tanya Sanerib of the Center for Biological Diversity. Between 2006 and 2015, an average of 374 giraffe trophies were imported into the US per year. That is more than a giraffe a day.

The Center for Biological Diversity and their petition co-sponsors believe protection under the ESA is critical. “The US is undeniably a part of the decline of giraffes and an ESA-listing would raise awareness about this fact and increase scrutiny of our imports,” says Tanya Sanerib at the Center for Biological Diversity.

And this fall, the Parties to the Convention on Migratory Species will decide whether to protect giraffes, which periodically and cyclically cross international borders or did so historically, under that Convention. Angola proposes listing giraffes on CMS Appendix II, which would require the establishment of agreements to protect and restore species habitat.

Though there is much to be done, it seems considerable strides are being made to learn more about giraffes and to protect them, from enacting greater legal protection and employing concerted anti-poaching measures to improving land-use planning and developing stewardship programs with local communities.

“I think giraffes capture our imaginations to begin with, but the more we learn about these animals the more fascinating they become,” says Sanerib. “Raising awareness about the decline of giraffes is so important, we have to halt their decline before it is too late.”

This is just the beginning of a giraffe recovery. With growing concern over their decline will hopefully propel the public to call on NGOs, governments, scientists, communities, and advocates to come together to protect and elevate this remarkable species so that it may thrive on our planet once again.

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