The 2013 Zoos and Aquariums: Committing to Conservation (ZACC) conference runs from July 8th—July 12th in Des Moines, Iowa, hosted by the Blank Park Zoo. Ahead of the event, Mongabay.com is running a series of Q&As with presenters. For more interviews, please see our ZACC feed.
Male Rothschild’s giraffe, listed as Endangered. Photo by: Julian Fennessy.
Just two year’s before his assassination, Julius Caesar brought to Rome one of the world’s most astonishing living creatures: a giraffe. The animal was among Caesar’s spoils from his campaign in Egypt and according to the Roman writer, Dio, the giraffe, which was arguably the first to ever touch European soil, was paraded in the Circus for all to see. Today, over two thousand years later, the giraffe has become one of the world’s most recognizable animals: after all nothing looks quite like it with its spotted coat, tufted horns, and, most importantly, that impossibly long neck. But less commonly known is that the giraffe is in trouble with some subspecies down to just a few hundred individuals.
“Two giraffe (sub)species have been classified on the IUCN Red List as ‘Endangered’—the West African giraffe (Giraffe Conservation Foundation (GCF), in a recent interview with mongabay.com.
Namibian giraffe male and two calves. Photo by: Julian Fennessy.
Just as giraffe populations are falling in some parts of Africa—along with many of the continents big mammals—Fennessy says scientists are only beginning to untangle giraffe taxonomy. Currently all giraffes are lumped into one species and nine subspecies, but genetic research may reveal that at least some of these subspecies are in fact distinct species.
“I am not a taxonomist but based on our ongoing research for the past decade we are coming up with some new and interesting findings,” he says. “At the moment it is still generally accepted that there is one species and nine (sub)species, although work by colleagues published in 2007 indicated that there might be reason for splitting into different species—and even more recently some spilt them into eight species!”
Giraffes are facing largely the same plights as Africa’s other megafauna: booming human populations, shrinking habitat, and poaching.
“This is seen as a global crisis but Africa’s issue to fix. We need to look globally for solutions. We are happy to use natural resources from developing nations, support the fight of disease and hunger, but wildlife and the habitat upon which they roam are key for our healthy future,” Fennessy says. “We need to strike a balance between population growth, human development and conserving our environment—the world is changing and we need a change in attitude from all to save it.”
Julian Fennessy will be presenting on his work with the Giraffe Conservation Foundation (GCF) at the 2013 Zoos and Aquariums: Committing to Conservation (ZACC) conference on Thursday, July 11th in Des Moines, Iowa.
AN INTERVIEW WITH JULIAN FENNESSY
Julian Fennessy. Photo courtesy of Julian Fennessy.
Mongabay: What’s your background?
Julian Fennessy: An Australian who got lost in (or maybe found) Africa…
Academically, I have a Bachelors of Applied Science in Natural Resource Management and a PhD in Biological Sciences on the ecology of the desert-dwelling giraffe in northwest Namibia.
Professionally, I have worked for a range of local and international companies and organizations in Africa and Australia focussing on wildlife, conservation, land management and sustainable development. Whether working with IUCN, African Wildlife Foundation, Namibia Nature Foundation, Government of Namibia, Bush Heritage Australia or Natural Resources Institute (University of Greenwich), the experiences obtained have enabled me to develop a range of technical, financial and management skills—all critical to running a small project, or directing a large NGO.
Mongabay: Why giraffes?
Young Masai giraffe in Nairobi National Park. Photo by: Julian Fennessy.
Julian Fennessy: Why not? Giraffe are one of the most loved critters in the world. Everyone knows what a giraffe looks like and importantly for me, they are easy to ‘spot’ and can research them during the day! No late nights like those chasing predators ☺
Mongabay: Why do you think giraffes have seen less scientific and conservation attention than many other of Africa’s big mammals?
Julian Fennessy: In all honesty, when l realized this 15 years ago l was super surprised…and I asked the same question myself to others. In short, I think it is because they do not have big teeth or have social systems similar to those of humans—strong and long family bonds. However, research on these gentle (and sometimes not so gentle) giants has, amongst other things, helped design astronaut space suits! One of our key needs is to now share with the world about how threatened they are becoming, we need to make them ‘sexy’ to help save them. With numbers likely dropping to below 80,000 total for all giraffe (sub)species, this should ring more alarm bells.
Mongabay: What are the major threats facing this species?
Julian Fennessy: All the standard factors which are affecting much of African wildlife in general—poaching (illegal hunting), human population growth, habitat loss, habitat fragmentation and habitat degradation. Whilst the impacts differ between populations, these and other threats continue to impact on the giraffe’s distribution and numbers across the African continent.
Mongabay: Currently there is only one giraffe species with nine subspecies. Is there evidence that any of these subspecies should be raised to species status?
West African giraffe in local village considered Endangered. Photo courtesy of Julian Fennessy.
Julian Fennessy: The million dollar question for all taxonomists—and the conundrum of whether you are a splitter or clumper! However, I am not a taxonomist but based on our ongoing research for the past decade we are coming up with some new and interesting findings. At the moment it is still generally accepted that there is one species and nine (sub)species, although work by colleagues published in 2007 indicated that there might be reason for splitting into different species—and even more recently some spilt them into eight species! I personally want to wait until all the data is in before suggesting any changes, however, what l can add is that our recently published paper on Thornicroft’s giraffe indicates that they are genetically similar to Masai giraffe…let the puzzle continue to unravel!
Mongabay: What are the most endangered giraffe populations?
Julian Fennessy: Surprisingly to most, two giraffe (sub)species have been classified on the IUCN Red List as ‘Endangered’—the West African giraffe (
However, sadly, there may be other populations threatened—if not all of them, as we are only starting to get a good feel on numbers and range. As an example, the Nubian giraffe in Ethiopia and maybe South Sudan would number less than the Rothschild’s giraffe, the Kordofan giraffe of Central Africa less than 3,000, and the reticulated giraffe in and around northern Kenya, less than 5,000 individuals. All in all the picture is not rosy…and there are still more (sub)species out there but their populations are also declining with the exception of those in Namibia.
Mongabay: What conservation measures are needed quickly to protect these populations?
Julian Fennessy: A number of countries, as example Botswana, Kenya, Niger and Zambia, have listed giraffe as a specially protected species, providing them the highest level of policy protection. However, aside from Niger, no dedicated giraffe conservation initiatives have been implemented. Whilst policy is key to flagging the problem, ignorance is no excuse as to why implementation to conserve giraffe has not happened. We need to fully understand how many giraffe there are and where (something we at GCF are working on), and then working with governments to use this information to then manage populations better, monitor populations, seek international support and assistance to implement strategies, and the list goes on. But we first must just start!
Mongabay: Big mammals are declining across Africa. What’s going on and what can be done to turn this around?
Research associate Dr. Rick Brenneman of Henry Doorly Omaha Zoo with locals in Botswana with genetic samples of giraffes. Photo courtesy of Julian Fennessy.
Julian Fennessy: Whilst numbers of African wildlife are declining we must put it into context that many species in developed countries are gone or precariously low. It is easy for someone sitting in Melbourne, London or Washington to cast aspersions as to why the decline but how many people are truly prepared to support, put their hand in their pocket, and get on the ground to make a change? I have asked many people the question of how much would they pay to conserve Africa’s wildlife and have the knowledge that they are safe. Sadly, few would come to the party. This is seen as a global crisis but Africa’s issue to fix. We need to look globally for solutions. We are happy to use natural resources from developing nations, support the fight of disease and hunger, but wildlife and the habitat upon which they roam are key for our healthy future. We need to strike a balance between population growth, human development and conserving our environment—the world is changing and we need a change in attitude from all to save it.
Mongabay: What can people do to help the giraffe?
Julian Fennessy: Aside from hard cash to support targeted conservation activities—no doubt that this always helps! ☺ The first step is for people to become more aware of the plight of giraffe and share this information with family, friends and colleagues. Awareness is key!
Fertility in Africa could push world population over 11 billion
(06/13/2013) The global population could grow by another 4 billion people by the end of the century if fertility rates in Africa don’t decline, according to a new report by the United Nations. Currently around 1.1 billion people live on the continent, but that number could skyrocket
to 4.2 billion (a 380 percent increase) by 2100, causing global population to hit 11 billion.
(05/29/2013) The Kenyan parliament has approved emergency measures to tackle the on-going poaching crisis: last week Kenyan MPs approved legislation that should lead to higher penalties for paochers. The emergency measure passed just as Kenya Wildlife Service’s (KWS) is pursuing a gang of poachers that slaughtered four rhinos over the weekend. Both rhinos and elephants have suffered heavily as poaching has escalated in Kenya and beyond.
(05/22/2013) Famed anthropologist and conservationist Richard Leakey has proposed a possible solution to the hugely controversial Serengeti road: build an elevated highway. Leakey made the remarks during a conference at Rutgers University on May 14th, as reported by Live Science. The Tanzanian government’s plans to build a road through the remote, northern Serengeti has come under both environmental and international criticism, as scientific studies and leaked government reports have found the proposed road would hugely hamper the world famous migration across the plans.
(03/18/2013) African lions (Panthera leo) living outside of protected areas like national parks or reserves also happen to be studied much less than those residing within protected areas, to the detriment of lion conservation initiatives. In response to this trend, a group of researchers surveyed an understudied, unprotected region in northwestern Mozambique called the Tete Province, whose geography and proximity to two national parks suggests a presence of lions.
(03/18/2013) Getting local people to become invested in wildlife conservation is not always easy, especially in parts of the world where protected areas are seen as taking away natural resources from local communities. This tension lies around Gonarezhou National Park in Zimbabwe, where a growing population of livestock herders competes with wildlife.
(03/04/2013) More than 60 percent of Africa’s forest elephants have been killed in the past decade due to the ivory trade, reports a new study published in the online journal PLOS ONE. The study warns that the diminutive elephant species — genetically distinct from the better-known savanna elephant — is rapidly heading toward extinction.