Conservation news

Disappearing giraffes

  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author alone.
  • Two recent meetings assessed the conservation status of giraffes and okapis.
  • The number of giraffes has almost been cut in half within the last few decades.

Sadly, it is not a magician’s illusion, but a genuine plummeting in giraffe numbers across Africa. After a two-year effort spearheaded by the Giraffe Conservation Foundation, members of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature [IUCN] Giraffe and Okapi Specialist Group met in advance of the 3rd International Giraffe Indaba to assess the conservation status of giraffes and okapis. Both meetings were held at the Southern African Wildlife College, just outside Kruger National Park. Forty-five delegates attended the meetings, representing about a dozen countries.

The IUCN maintains a Red List that categorizes species according to a set of criteria that indicate the threat of extinction. Threatened species are labeled according their risk of extinction as Vulnerable, Endangered, or Critically Endangered. The okapi lives only in the dense, tropical forests of Central Africa and has recently been classified as “Endangered” by the IUCN. The closest living relative of the okapi is the giraffe, a species that lives outside the Congo Basin, in a variety of habitats ranging from desert to woodland/savanna. Although resident across Africa, giraffes live in mostly disconnected pockets that are home to specific subspecies. Nine subspecies of giraffes are currently recognized. While two subspecies of giraffes are considered to be “Endangered”, the species Giraffa camelopardalis is classified as “Least Concern” by the IUCN. However, the current situation, as discussed at the recent meeting, questions this classification, because giraffes are threatened with extinction.

Giraffes at sunset. Photo by Francois Deacon.

The number of giraffes has almost been cut in half within the last few decades. From an estimate of close to 150,000 individuals not too long ago, their numbers have plunged to just under 85,000 giraffes today. To put this drastic decrease into perspective, consider two other large African mammals: elephants and chimpanzees. About 100 elephants are killed every day, and elephants are classified as “Vulnerable” by the IUCN, but the African continent contains about six times as many elephants as giraffes. Chimpanzees are officially classified as “Endangered”, thus more at threat of extinction than either elephants or giraffes, yet they are 2 ½ to 3 ½ times as numerous as giraffes. The subspecies that I have studied with Phil Berry in Africa, Thornicroft’s giraffe, lives only in the Luangwa Valley, Zambia, and probably numbers fewer than 600 animals, or about 75% as many as the mountain gorilla, a species classified as “Endangered”.

The crisis in numbers is a complicated and complex situation because of differences in population trends across Africa. For example, Kenya, Tanzania, and South Africa are home to about 70% of all giraffes, but numbers are decreasing in the first two countries, yet increasing in the latter country. Giraffe numbers have doubled in both South Africa and Namibia, two countries, which, ironically, allow for giraffe hunting, as well as ownership of giraffes on conservancies and private land. On the other hand, one of the giraffe subspecies frequently found in zoos around the world, the Masai giraffe, has diminished in numbers by close to 60% in its homelands in Kenya and Tanzania. Unlike elephants and rhinoceros, who face significant challenges from illegal hunting, giraffes are rarely the object of poaching. The primary threats to giraffes are the trio of habitat loss/fragmentation, resource extraction, and human population growth across Africa.

A tower of giraffes. Photo by Fred B. Bercovitch.
Giraffes. Photo by Francois Deacon.

Giraffes are an iconic species popular in zoos and on African wildlife safaris, yet scientists are only now beginning to crack the secret code regulating giraffe ecology and behavior. Giraffes are browsers, so eat mostly from trees, but their diet is very diverse and includes a lot more than Acacia leaves. In Zambia, for example, they have been recorded feeding on nearly 100 different types of plants. However, as in other locations, over half their diet consists of a handful of species. The large number of plant species eaten ought to reduce their prospects for extinction, because they can subsist on a variety of plant types, but because of landscape changes, the areas available to giraffes are shrinking. Giraffe home ranges can be as small as 10 square kilometers, or 4 square miles, or in excess of 1,000 square kilometers. Giraffe home ranges overlap with each other, and depend upon the habitat, but average home range size is close to 130 square kilometers. Giraffes not only tend to have large home ranges, and a diverse diet, but their home ranges shift between wet and dry seasons, when they favor different plants. Hence, mapping giraffe habitat for conservation purposes is an arduous task.

One of the most intriguing findings to have emerged from recent reports, as well as presentations at the 3rd Giraffe Indaba, is that giraffes live in a complex social system, called “fission/fusion”, resembling the societies that elephants, dolphins, and chimpanzees live in. Giraffes do not simply wander their home ranges and bump into other giraffes at a preferred food resource. Instead, their society resembles a cocktail party: some individuals spend a lot of time with few others, some spend a little time with many others, some are withdrawn wallflowers; some congregate around a limited resource (such as the sangria bowl or water hole), and some are on the lookout for a mating partner. How giraffes recognize each other, maintain long-term friendships, decide when to join or leave a herd, and communicate with each other are active areas of current research. Assembling the information can help in devising conservation management plans, especially if habitats are shrinking and giraffes are relocated to new areas as a conservation measure.

Giraffe and elephants. Photo by Fred B. Bercovitch.
Giraffe. Photo by Fred B. Bercovitch.

One recurrent theme of both the IUCN GOSG meeting and the Indaba was that preservation and conservation of giraffes must incorporate a better understanding of landscape dynamics and ecosystems processes. Animals cannot be saved in the absence of also saving the areas where they live, but given that they move about over large areas, setting up permanent lines on a map might not be the best solution. Some conservation ideas, such as drilling boreholes and providing a permanent water source to help animals cope with dry season conditions, have backfired because the waterholes are magnets for multiple species which then tend to overgraze the vegetation and ruin the environment. A second theme was that promoting awareness and education of the plight of the giraffes is fundamental to saving the world’s tallest animal. Such campaigns ought to target both the local communities and the international donors. However, unless the people living in the neighborhood of the giraffes realize a benefit from residing next to the giraffes, then the prospects for preservation are reduced. Not every place where giraffes live is prime for ecotourism, so alternative avenues of income are necessary. One of the more heated and contentious topics on the agenda was whether or not the controlled hunting of giraffes ought to be encouraged in some places as a conservation tactic. The concept that aesthetics should drive conservation sounds wonderful, but is most often a wealthy, Western approach that falls on tin ears and empty stomachs in Africa.

The disappearing giraffe was a depressing topic to discuss, but meeting participants expressed optimism about the future. A focused change in mindset, coupled with real action, rather than interminable and incessant discussion, appeared as a major ingredient in the recipe for saving giraffes. The Western viewpoint about gay people has largely shifted within one generation from consignment to psychiatric treatment to acceptance in marriage, sometimes with children. The hope is that the mindset of people can rapidly change in a similar fashion regarding the plight of the giraffes and that the potential classification of giraffes as “Vulnerable” will launch more concerted conservation efforts that prevent the species from erasure from the planet.

Giraffe. Photo by Fred B. Bercovitch.