Giraffes May Actually Be Four Separate Species

A groundbreaking new study released this week on giraffe genetics is making big waves within the wildlife conservation community. Giraffes, previously thought by scientists to be one species divided into nine subspecies, could in fact be four completely separate species—with genetic differences among those four giraffe species being as significant as the differences between polar bears and brown bears.

The study, just published in the scientific journal Current Biology, identifies for the first time the four new giraffe species: the northern giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis), southern giraffe (G. giraffa), reticulated giraffe (G. reticulata), and Masai giraffe (G. tippelskirchi)—meaning some of the current subspecies, such as Rothschild’s, genetically are included in these new full species. The new study also states that genetic analysis of giraffe relationships show these four distinct species of giraffe do not mate with each other in the wild. If widely accepted, this new study will have major impacts on zoos across the globe—including the San Diego Zoo—as well as research and conservation efforts across the African continent.

“While this study is undoubtedly exciting, it is also vital to shaping giraffe conservation programs in Africa, and how conservationists prioritize their scant resources to protect as well as learn more about these graceful giants,” said David O’Connor, a community-based conservation ecologist at San Diego Zoo Global. “Our hope is that this announcement will raise awareness and mobilize increased support for giraffe conservation, and better focus our collective efforts on the ground for giraffe and the people living with them, before its too late.”

Currently, the world’s population of giraffes is steadily decreasing, with little less than 100,000 individuals now left on Earth. That is a 40 percent drop over the last 30 years, sparking concern that if the trend continues, these iconic animals could become extinct in the wild within a generation.

In many African countries, giraffe populations are decreasing because of poaching, habitat loss and overgrazing of resources by livestock—and overall giraffe numbers are so low, they are now extinct in seven African nations. Two current subspecies, the West African or Nigerian giraffe and the Rothschild’s giraffe, are already listed as endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. Scientists are also seeing a dramatic drop in the population of reticulated giraffes. There are now a little over 8,000 individuals left on Earth, making it one of the most at-risk large animals on the planet.

San Diego Zoo Global has partnered with numerous conservation organizations—including the Giraffe Conservation Foundation, The Nature Conservancy, the Northern Rangelands Trust, Loisaba Conservancy, Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, Namunyak Wildlife Conservation Trust, Sarara Camp and Global Conservation Force—to help conserve reticulated giraffes in East Africa. This conservation program was launched earlier this year, with a team of scientists from the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research working with Kenyan pastoralists to research, monitor and protect giraffes in the northern Kenya rangelands. The team also assisted in the care of three orphan giraffes, and their release back to the wild.

“This new work by San Diego Zoo Global and our many partners is only possible with the vision and support of San Diegans and the other Heroes for Wildlife from around the globe,” said O’Connor. “Due to their generosity, we, along with our collaborators, have taken action and launched this new community-involved giraffe conservation initiative in the vast northern Kenyan rangeland, the last stronghold of the reticulated giraffe.”

In an article by David O’Connor, published June 20 on the San Diego Zoo’s ZOONOOZ website, he describes in detail the challenges conservationists face—and the large collaborative effort that is now underway, providing a glimmer of hope for a species under siege. To read the article, click here.