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6 January 2017

Is the world’s tallest creature heading for a fall?

A recent list of threatened species revealed that giraffes are now on the brink of extinction after a devastating decline.

By Anjuli R. K. shere

One of nature’s most lovable creatures, giraffes split their time between tottering around – head (neck) and shoulders above the rest of the animal kingdom – and eating. Dubbed “gentle giants” by David Attenborough, these gangly beasts have long exerted a fascination over humankind. Ancient Egyptians were so enamoured with giraffes they gave them their own hieroglyph, and in modern times, our interest in the world’s tallest land animals continues – from the use of giraffe skin to help in the development of astronaut and pilot suits, to their starring roles in children’s films. Unfortunately, Melman (the hypochondriac giraffe from Dreamworks’ film Madagascar) is right to feel worried. Giraffes are no longer as prolific as they once were – in fact, in 2017 they could face extinction.

On the African continent, to which giraffes are endemic, the rapid growth of the human population has been accompanied by a rise in agricultural development, poaching, deforestation, and civil wars – all of which have caused a loss of both habitats and lives for giraffes. Wild giraffes are already extinct in seven countries in Africa – Burkina Faso, Eritrea, Guinea, Malawi, Mauritania, Nigeria and Senegal.  As a result, the most recent list of threatened species compiled by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature revealed a potential tragedy – the black-tongued sweethearts of the animal kingdom, have officially been moved from the category of “least concern” to that marked “vulnerable”, only three categories away from being totally “extinct in the wild”. The giraffe is the only mammal whose status changed on the list.

At a biological diversity conference which took place in December in Cancun, Mexico, the IUCN explained that over the last three decades giraffe numbers have dwindled from around 157,000 to just 97,500 – a fall of 36-40%. The situation is bleak, but giraffes are not yet classified as “endangered” and could still make a comeback, with a little support.

Raising awareness of the plight of endangered animals is the most effective means by which we can change the human behaviour that impacts negatively on diminishing species. The problem is not just that giraffes are deliberately being killed by poachers, but also (and arguably on a larger scale) that they are dying as a consequence of other actions – such as deforestation, which removes their food source.

The first step in altering these leggy creatures’ fate is education, and little details can make a big difference. One such detail is that, contrary to previous assumptions, giraffes are not one group comprised of multiple subspecies. Rather, as geneticists recently discovered, there are four distinct species of giraffe that do not interbreed in the wild. This has ramifications for conservation techniques, which will have to be focused on the needs of each species – not just the reticulated (or Somali) giraffe, which is the species most commonly seen in zoos.

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If you type into Google “how to save the giraffe”, you will find a mass of petitions and links to giraffe conservation societies. The short answer, as the conservation expert Julian Fennessy put it, is that we must “stick our neck out for the giraffe before it is too late”. On a local level, petitioning politicians will prove it is a popular problem that deserves attention, and that in turn should encourage governments to act.

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To this end, in September the IUCN put forward a resolution entitled “Giraffids: reversing the decline of Africa’s iconic megafauna”, which encourages its members to raise awareness and funds, as well as pledging to increase conservation efforts for giraffid species (giraffes and okapis). Their most wide-ranging proposal is that the international community help restore and preserve sites of particular significance to giraffe populations. This would involve upholding states’ commitments to the World Heritage Convention, including ensuring the security of World Heritage Sites such as the Garamba National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Ultimately, the resolution concludes, the most useful tool would be the development of a unified Africa-wide Giraffe Conservation Strategy and Action Plan.

As a call to action, everything the resolution recommends seems intuitive. However, behind the proposal to fortify national parks lies a grim truth – many of them are threatened by the instability that comes with continuous conflict.  Some of the world’s most critically endangered species reside within biodiversity hotspots such as Murchison Falls National Park in Africa which holds one of the few surviving populations of the Rothschild giraffe.

Unfortunately, these hotspots, of which there are 34 worldwide, are under threat from conflict. Between 1960 and 2010, over 80% of the world’s major armed conflicts took place within recognised biodiversity hotspots. War has certainly impacted the giraffe population – “In these war-torn areas, in northern Kenya, Somalia, and Ethiopia in the border area with South Sudan, essentially the giraffes are war fodder, a large animal, extremely curious, that can feed a lot of people”, Fennessy told the BBC.

Political experts the world over are torn over how to respond to crises such as the decline of the giraffe population. Governments and NGOs who have the resources to help to protect and maintain conservation efforts must recognise the need for long term involvement and investment. Hopefully, our on-going love affair with giraffes will help spark a united action to preserve them on this planet so that they may continue to bewitch and baffle future generations in the flesh, rather than ending up as the next long-necked staple of London’s Natural History Museum.