How the giraffe was almost forgotten

By Nick Funnell

How is it that we’ve managed to overlook the giraffe?

Breakthrough research suggests there are four species of giraffe – not just one – as distinct from each other as brown bears are from polar bears. We hear the latest from conservationists in the field about how one of the four is among the most endangered mammals in the world.

Even though they stand at more than 5m tall and weigh over a tonne, we have neglected our tallest living land mammal, and over the past three decades, their numbers have plummeted by 40 per cent. Then, late 2016, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) promoted the giraffes’ threat status from ‘least concern’ straight to ‘vulnerable’ – jumping over the ‘near-threatened’ category and catapulting them centre stage. ‘There has certainly been a lot of interest and shock that will definitely help giraffes,’ says Stephanie Fennessy, director of the Namibia-based Giraffe Conservation Foundation (GCF).

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These gentle giants have been overlooked and have already become extinct in seven countries."

Sir David Attenborough

The new listing puts the daddy of all long legs firmly on the conservation agenda, allowing organisations such as the GCF – the only conservation group focused entirely on giraffes – to apply for new forms of funding to further its work protecting these beautiful creatures. This year the GCF will move forward with key projects in Uganda and Kenya, and on game-changing DNA research that’s already turning what we thought we knew about the species on its head.

The facts make bleak reading. In 1985, around 157,000 giraffes roamed Africa. That number now stands at about 97,500, says the IUCN – four times fewer than the population of African bush elephants (415,000). The main causes are habitat loss and poaching. As human populations grow and urban areas expand, farming and industry encroach on the plains where giraffes live, bringing them into greater contact with people and increasing the likelihood they will be illegally hunted or killed for destroying crops. Giraffes are slaughtered not just for their meat, but also for their tails, which are highly valued in places such as the Republic of the Congo and Democratic Republic of the Congo, where they are sometimes given as a dowry in a marriage proposal. The long tail hairs are often also turned into fly swats.

Two giraffes walking through grassland in Kenya
© James Warwick | Getty

Redefining the Species

Giraffes have already vanished from seven countries. Most now live in southern and eastern Africa, with only small populations in the west and centre of the continent where war and civil unrest add to the threats they face. However, the stats are muddied slightly by the current debate over the number of giraffe species. The IUCN currently recognises the giraffe as one single species with nine subspecies. Of these, three have increasing populations, five have decreasing populations and one is stable. However, DNA research by the GCF and German geneticists suggests giraffes should actually be separated into four species: the northern giraffe (with three subspecies), the southern giraffe (with two subspecies), the reticulated giraffe and the Maasai giraffe, all of which look similar but do not appear to mate with each other. ‘Looking at the genetics, the types of giraffe are probably more different from polar bears and brown bears,’ says Fennessy.

If the findings are confirmed and accepted by the IUCN, this would change everything. While we can now say there are around 100,000 giraffes in the wild, recognising them as four species means splitting that figure into one bigger group (the southern giraffe) and three smaller, more vulnerable ones. Northern giraffes, for example, number just over 5,000 in the wild. ‘If this really is a different species, that makes them one of the most endangered mammals in the world,’ says Fennessy. ‘If they are different, then they should be managed differently and we shouldn’t mix them.’ The GCF is now seeking to verify its findings by looking beyond the genetics to giraffe morphology – for example, at coat pattern and head shape.

Recovery Position

In the meantime, we can look towards Niger for an inspirational example of how giraffe populations can recover. Despite being one of the poorest countries in Africa, it has put its weight behind protecting its giraffes. Back in the 1990s there were just 50 giraffes left in Niger. Now, thanks to strictly enforced anti-poaching regulations and pro-giraffe education efforts – which include microloans to giraffe-friendly farmers – their numbers have risen to around 550 (though they remain very rare). ‘People are tolerant of them and proud of them. It’s a positive story considering Niger is such a poor country,’ Fennessy says.

A giraffe standing next to an acacia tree in the savannah at sunset
© Buena Vista Images | Getty

While we can curb illegal hunting, habitat loss is far more difficult to fix because it means curtailing vital economic development. That said, if giraffes are threatened in a particular place, you can always move them elsewhere – though you need to catch them first. As giraffes are so big, you can’t simply fire a tranquilliser dart and wait for them to keel over – the fall could kill them. Instead they must be tranquillised then wrestled to the ground with ropes and given the antidote – failure to administer it in time could be fatal. As you’re doing all this, you also need to watch out for their lethal kicks, as a single strike can knock a person’s head off.

These were the difficulties the GCF and the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) had to cope with last year when they successfully moved 18 of the approximate 1,000 Nubian giraffes (a northern giraffe subspecies) that live in Uganda’s Murchison Falls National Park across the River Nile to escape an area where oil drilling was about to begin. Operation Twiga was the subject of a BBC Natural World documentary narrated by Sir David Attenborough, and the GCF and UWA plan to repeat the process by moving another 18 or so giraffes later this year to consolidate the new population. The GCF sees the new IUCN rating leading to more partnerships with conservation groups in Kenya, where it plans to become the government’s main giraffe protection partner in 2017.

The relocated Nubian giraffes have been tracked far and wide across their new home, which has led to a fascinating discovery: as they browse the treetops for food, their heads and necks become covered with pollen, which they spread from flower to flower. It makes them possibly the largest pollinators on the planet and is another reason to save them.

Giraffes are so familiar, yet so strange, that we can forget they are real animals facing up to real problems. But our awareness of those realities is vital to preserving them, with all their magical peculiarities. As Fennessy says: ‘They’re just so awkward. They still put a smile on my face every time I see them in the wild.’

Featured Image © Gregory Linford