By Dr. Becker
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has, for the first time, added giraffes to its Red List of Threatened Species. The species has been listed as “vulnerable,” which means it’s considered to be facing a high risk of extinction in the wild.1,2
Over the last 30 years, giraffe populations have plummeted by up to 40 percent, dropping from more than 151,000 giraffes in 1985 to an estimated 97,562 giraffes as of 2015.3
“The populations of Giraffes are scattered and fragmented with different growth trajectories and threats, but the species trend reveals an overall large decline in numbers across their range in Africa,” IUCN notes.4
The Four Major Giraffe Threats
As the world’s tallest mammals, reaching heights of 14 to 19 feet, giraffes are one of the most recognized animals across the globe.
Their primary predators are lions and crocodiles, but that’s not what could be driving them to extinction. Human activities, from illegal hunting to encroaching on giraffe habitat, are among the biggest threat to this species. According to IUCN:5
“The growing human population is having a negative impact on many giraffe subpopulations. Illegal hunting, habitat loss and changes through expanding agriculture and mining, increasing human-wildlife conflict, and civil unrest are all pushing the species toward extinction.”
Giraffes live primarily in southern and eastern Africa, although smaller populations can also be found spread throughout west and central Africa. IUCN highlighted four major threats to giraffes, noting that the severity of each threat varied according to region:6
- Habitat loss, largely due to deforestation, converting land to other uses, expanding agriculture or human population growth
- Civil unrest, including rebel militias and paramilitary and military operations
- Illegal hunting. Giraffes can be hunted legally in parts of southern Africa, but illegal hunting for meat also occurs. In 2016, a documentary filmmaker also highlighted the killing of three giraffes for their tails, which are considered a status symbol.7
- Ecological changes, including mining activity and expanding agriculture. IUCN explained, “Habitat fragmentation and degradation are probably the most widespread and greatest threats to African wildlife, including Giraffes, often arising as a consequence of mineral extraction and/or habitat conversion to agricultural crops.”8
Resolution Calls for Action to Stop Giraffe Decline
While giraffes are one of the most iconic animal species, relatively little research and conservation efforts have been directed their way (while about 20,000 scientific papers have been written about rhinos, for instance, only 400 exist on giraffes, according to Axel Janke, an evolutionary biologist at the Senckenberg Biodiversity and Climate Research Center in Germany9).
At the IUCN World Conservation Congress in September 2016, a resolution was adopted to reverse the decline of giraffes in Africa.
It cites a need to restore the security of threatened protected areas as well as develop specific conservation activities, including improved survey and monitoring methods.10 Conservation is complicated by that fact that some giraffe populations are actually increasing or stable while others are in decline.
In addition, some giraffes live in legally protected areas, others on private farms and still others in unprotected areas.
While the use of fences and border protection has been successful in allowing a herd of giraffes to live within a certain area, IUCN notes, “The continued growth of these populations however is limited by the ability of that ecosystem to support a particular number of Giraffes due to space, water and forage availability.”11
On a brighter note, in Niger, which developed a National Giraffe Conservation Strategy when numbers dipped to just 49 individuals, the number of giraffes has increased eight-fold in the last two decades.12
How Many Giraffe Species Are There?
IUCN recognizes only one giraffe species with nine subspecies, but recent research suggests there may actually be four distinct species of giraffe in Africa: northern giraffe, southern giraffe, reticulated giraffe and Masai giraffe.13,14
Janke, the evolutionary biologist, and colleagues reviewed genetic data from hundreds of giraffes and revealed major differences between subspecies of giraffes — differences similar in scope to those found between brown bears and polar bears.
“It was surprising to see these different subspecies were genetically so distinct — there was no intermixing,” Janke told National Geographic.15
While others have disputed the findings because they don’t take into account other factors that may play a role in classification, like body characteristics, the researchers believed highlighting the separate species could help improve conservation efforts.
Two of the species, for instance, have fewer than 10,000 individual animals left, which calls for urgent protective action.
Okapi Are Also Endangered
The Giraffidae family includes only giraffes and one other species: okapi, which now live only in the north-eastern rainforests of the Democratic Republic of Congo.16
Okapi, which are sometimes called forest giraffes, are currently endangered and their numbers are decreasing. This giraffe relative, which resembles a cross between a giraffe and a zebra, is at serious risk due to habitat loss and hunting. However, according to the IUCN Red List:17
“The most prominent current threat to [o]kapi is the presence of illegal armed groups in and around key protected areas. These groups prevent effective conservation action, even surveys and monitoring in most sites …
In a notorious incident in June 2012, armed rebels attacked the RFO [the Okapi Fauna Reserve] HQ and killed seven people and all 14 captive [o]kapi.”
Okapi were included in the IUCN World Conservation Congress resolution calling for increased protection and conservation efforts.