Giraffes Are Vulnerable

World Conservation Leaders Announce  Species Status Change, Following Sobering Population Report

World conservationists made a major announcement today, in response to a dramatic decrease in the population of an iconic animal: All giraffes are now listed as “vulnerable” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. Giraffes were previously listed as species of “least concern.”

The declaration comes three months after the IUCN World Conservation Congress—the largest and most comprehensive environmental decision-making forum in the world—reviewed a grim report detailing the dwindling numbers of giraffes remaining on the planet. While the news isn’t good, conservationists say today’s “vulnerable” status declaration may bring much-needed attention to the dire state of affairs for giraffes, and greater support for organizations working to stem the tide of giraffes silently going extinct.

“This status change for giraffes will hopefully mean greater action for giraffe conservation,” said David O’Connor, a community-based conservation ecologist at San Diego Zoo Global. “This announcement could lead to greater focus, attention and vital help for giraffe conservation—so that the giraffe conservation community is able to save these gorgeous, graceful and environmentally important animals, and ensure that they’ll remain the ‘watchtowers of the savanna’ for generations to come.”

For years, conservationists have worked tirelessly to track and count the species—analyzing existing data, conducting giraffe counts and even tracking individual giraffes. Assessing giraffe population numbers can be challenging and expensive work, requiring aerial surveys and long hours in the field monitoring and counting giraffes, often in remote areas with rough terrain.

Following their extensive work, researchers concluded the world’s population of giraffe continues to decrease collectively, with only a little over 95,000 individuals now left in their native habitats. That is a 40-percent drop over the last 20 years, sparking concern that if the trend continues, these iconic animals could become extinct in the wild within a generation.

In many African countries, some giraffe subspecies have increased in population, while others experienced very dramatic declines of up to 80 percent. The alarming downward trend is due to poaching, habitat loss and overgrazing of resources by livestock—with certain giraffe subpopulations decreasing so rapidly they have  become extinct in seven African nations. San Diego Zoo Global has partnered with the Giraffe Conservation Foundation, Northern Rangelands Trust, and The Nature Conservancy, as well as other conservation organizations, to help conserve giraffes in East Africa. This year, a team of scientists from the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research launched a conservation project with Kenyan pastoralists to find ways to collaborate and protect giraffes in the savanna, including creating a fenced sanctuary for giraffes.

Scientists are also analyzing how giraffes’ change of status will impact the findings of a groundbreaking genetic study, released two months ago, that found a genetic basis that divides giraffes into four distinct species. Currently, one giraffe species is recognized, with nine subspecies. The study, published in the scientific journal Current Biology, identifies for the first time four new giraffe species: northern giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis), southern giraffe (G. giraffa), reticulated giraffe (G. reticulata), and Masai giraffe (G. tippelskirchi)—with some of the current subspecies, such as Rothschild’s, genetically included in these new full species designations. If  accepted, combined with giraffes’ new Red List status, this new study will have major impacts on zoos across the globe—including the San Diego Zoo—as well as research and conservation priorities for efforts across the African continent.