The tallest land mammal is facing unprecedented threats to its survival across Africa. But hope is on the way!
BY Karyl Carmignani
Photography by Ken Bohn
Videography by Dustin Trayer
Gangly yet graceful, this two-story-tall animal both blends in and stands out among the thorny acacia trees. Nimble, skittish, and quiet (to our ears), the giraffe is an iconic species of the African plains and a vital link in the dance of predator and prey. But the population of this once-ubiquitous herbivore has declined by nearly half over the past 20 years: from 140,000 animals to about 85,000 today.
While the giraffe is one of the most recognizable species on Earth, few people are aware of its dire situation, dubbed a “silent extinction” by experts. As is the case with many other species fighting to survive, threats to the giraffe are human-driven: habitat loss and fragmentation, poaching, and overhunting. While some populations of giraffe are stable, many are in rapid decline. San Diego Zoo Global is collaborating with organizations and local communities to give these quiet giants a voice and help reverse this disturbing trend.
There are nine recognized subspecies of giraffe living in geographically distinct areas across Africa. Once roaming across arid savanna zones in sub-Saharan Africa wherever trees and bushes occurred, the giraffe’s range has shrunk significantly. They have already vanished from seven African countries. Most populations are in decline, but only two subspecies of giraffe are formally listed as endangered: the Rothschild’s (also called the Ugandan or Baringo giraffe) and the West African (also called the Nigerian giraffe). But following a recent review, another five subspecies will likely be reclassified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as endangered.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, giraffes have plunged from about 350 animals two decades ago, to about 38 animals today, according to a recent survey in Garamba National Park. In rural communities in Africa, bushmeat (wild game) is an important source of protein, and surplus meat is sold for added income. Though wary, giraffes are large targets that can be taken with a single bullet, poison arrow, or wire noose. The animal can provide about 1,000 pounds of meat.
In a cruel twist of fate, some people now believe that consuming giraffe brains and bone marrow will cure HIV/AIDS. In some areas, this myth has placed a higher value on the giraffe and accelerated the illegal hunting of this slow-to-reproduce animal. Setting leg or neck snares in giraffe habitat is an inexpensive way to kill them and peddle their parts. Over the past year, San Diego Zoo Global has been collaborating with others to help save the graceful longnecks of the savanna.
Gliding across the landscape, giraffe groups—called towers—are virtually silent in their quest for leaves. With hooves the size of dinner plates, attached to 6-foot-long legs, even an effortless stroll can carry them 10 miles per hour. It takes a 20-pound heart in an adult giraffe to pump blood up its characteristic long neck. Fuzzy little horns called ossicones poke from the top of the giraffe’s giant head. Deep, dark eyes dramatically fringed with thick lashes peer down at the world, and at stands of prickly, delicious trees.
The giraffe is equipped with an 18-inch-long, prehensile tongue that can reach between needlelike thorns for leaves. It has a well-padded mouth and saliva thicker than motor oil that helps send said vegetation southward. Its large, powerful jaw moves sideways and up and down, making the animal completely enchanting while it’s chewing.
Eating about 75 pounds of leafy food a day, giraffes open up habitat for other wildlife and spur new growth of tender acacia leaves. And eating all that roughage while on the move makes them ideal seed dispersers, essentially regenerating their own food sources. Giraffes “play well with others” and are often associated with plains zebra, eland, and other species that rely on the towering animals to spot danger in the distance and flee accordingly.
It’s hard to imagine that an animal nearly 20 feet tall could stay “under the radar” for so long, even as its numbers declined dramatically. Conservationists hadn’t given too much attention to giraffes, called twiga in Kiswahili, until around 2010, when it became clear something was amiss with this once-reliable accent on the landscape. “We’re learning a lot more about their ecology, but what we know is still way behind what we know about other species,” said David O’Connor, research coordinator with San Diego Zoo Global. Committed to conserving land, livelihoods, ecosystems, and wildlife, recently David has developed a collaborative effort with a cohort of organizations (Giraffe Conservation Foundation, The Nature Conservancy, Loisaba Conservancy, Namunyak Wildlife Conservation Trust, the Northern Rangelands Trust, and Sarara Camp/Sessia Ltd.) and local pastoralist-herder communities to foster multipronged, community-based conservation of giraffes in Kenya.
To better understand human-giraffe coexistence and conflict, the team seeks to uncover the attitudes, perceptions, beliefs, values, knowledge, and behavior of the people who live among giraffes. Later, a team of five Kenyan pastoralists—two experienced research coordinators and three trained citizen scientists—will manage a network of camera traps used in giraffe identification. Over time, they will become known as Twiga Walinzi—giraffe guards—supporting giraffe conservation in the region. “People in local communities are the key to conservation over the long term,” said David. “Through finding sustainable conservation strategies that work for both giraffes and people, our collaborators and San Diego Zoo Global will try to help prevent the extinction of these iconic giants of the savanna.”
When funded, a future component of the collaboration will be placing GPS collars on 12 giraffes. The critical data collected will elucidate the animals’ activity patterns, social structure, range, and encounters with humans and livestock.
Camels and Competition
Part of David O’Connor’s research has focused on giraffes in East Africa, specifically human-livestock-giraffe interactions. By studying how reticulated giraffes forage—what plants they eat and how high they browse—David will also observe how the giraffes co-exist with a newly introduced livestock species: dromedary camels. Hefty and hardy, these camels can go extended lengths of time without water, so pastoralists are raising more of them. David noticed fewer reticulated giraffes in areas where the camels grazed.
Since this subspecies of giraffe has declined by about 80 percent in 20 years (from about 38,000 to just 8,600), it is important to understand the dynamics between the introduced camels and the native giraffes, as well as tackle other aspects of threats to giraffes. “Local communities need quality education and sustainable sources of protein, and collaboratively developed land and wildlife management plans,” explained David. In short, we need to make a living giraffe worth more to local communities than a dead one. San Diego Zoo Global is committed to saving species from extinction. It’s a tall order, but one we can accomplish with your support at endextinction.org/giraffe.