Let’s give giraffes the spotlight they deserve! Saturday, June 21, 2014, will be the first-ever World Giraffe Day. Finally, the importance of giraffe conservation is recognized! We agree with the organizers: the longest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere is the most appropriate day to celebrate the tallest animal! Plans are to have an Open House that day at the San Diego Zoo’s giraffe barn for all Zoo guests from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Keepers will be on hand to answer questions and show you giraffe biofacts.
While I may be biased, giraffes are the best animals there are. Giraffes are up there with elephants, rhinos, whales, and lions in iconic status in the minds of the public. However, compared to those species, we know relatively little about giraffes. They are the forgotten megafauna.
Here are just some of the things we don’t know for certain:
• How many types of giraffes are there: 6, 7, 8, or 9 subspecies? Consensus is growing that there are 9.
• How do we quantify a giraffe herd?
Giraffes seem to have fission-fusion assemblages, with individuals wandering in and out of groups seemingly willy-nilly, without anyone in charge. By the way, a group of giraffes is called a tower—brilliant!
• How do they communicate?
They’re basically silent, although some researchers think giraffes may be communicating ultrasonically, and we just can’t hear it.
Giraffes are also good climbers.
• The greatest mystery of them all: Why the long neck?
This hasn’t been fully answered!
• How many are there?
This is perhaps the most important question from a conservation perspective. We don’t know for certain, but the current estimate is that there are perhaps 80,000 left in the wild. That seems like a lot; however, that summation glosses over an ominous truth: giraffes are facing dark days and need our attention, research, and help.
Let’s dissect that 80,000 figure and break it down by giraffe subspecies. Please see Table 1 (below), and you can see it is a mixed story.
Some giraffes, such as the Masai, seem to have relatively healthy populations, while other giraffes are struggling. Especially startling are the West African, Rothschild’s, and Thornicroft’s subspecies population numbers. And Nubian giraffes, unfortunately, may already be extinct in the wild; we’re not sure. This massive rapid decline has occurred just over the past 20 years or so and with very little notice. Giraffes are slipping away in silence.
There are several reasons, we think, for these declines. We need more data, but the main causes contributing to the extinction of giraffes are habitat loss, poaching for food and mythical medical cures, and trophy hunting, to a lesser extent. Since giraffes are little studied, there are likely additional factors that we need to uncover.
But let’s take what we know. Habitat loss is the number one cause of species declines and extinctions worldwide. It is no different with giraffes. As human populations increase, and traditional livelihood and land uses change to being less conducive to wildlife, less room is available for giraffes to live and find food and water. Layered atop this are the climate-chaos induced changes in rainfall patterns. Unpredictable rainfall cycles result in less food resources for giraffes (and other herbivores), leading to a decline in population.
A male Masai giraffe strolls past flamingos in Tanzania.
The next large driver toward extinction is also a recent development: poaching. Many poverty-stricken regions of sub-Saharan Africa have a hard time finding sources of animal protein. Growing human populations and a decline in traditionally harvested wildlife species have led people to seek new sources of protein. As such, giraffes are being poached in increasing numbers for their meat. Despite their size, giraffes can be easy to kill if you know what you’re doing. All poachers need is a bit of steel wire. A correctly placed leg- or neck-snare can capture a giraffe that is then killed or may be left to die slowly. Unfortunately, such poaching is having an increasingly devastating effect on giraffe numbers.
A third, and perhaps the most infuriating, driver of giraffe decline is poaching giraffes for mythical medical cures. Somehow, a myth began that, if eaten, giraffe bone marrow and brains will protect against HIV-AIDS infection. This is absolutely not true. But this myth has taken hold and created a black market, such that poachers can get U.S. $140 or more for giraffe marrow. This is heartbreaking on multiple levels. Giraffe are being pointlessly slaughtered to obtain a “medicine” that does not work. Add to this the human tragedy—all those who have taken this “cure” and falsely believe they are safe from infection. Thus, they engage in risky behaviors, become infected themselves, and likely further spread the AIDS pandemic.
My research has focused on giraffes in East Africa, specifically human-livestock-giraffe interactions. I studied how reticulated giraffes forage in the wild (what plants they eat and how high up) and how they co-exist with a newly introduced large livestock species, the dromedary camel. I noticed fewer and fewer reticulated giraffes in areas where camels are grazed. Reticulated giraffes have undergone a horrific decline: 80 percent over the past 15 years alone. Since the turn of the century, they have gone from about 28,000 strong to just 5,000 today. At that rate, they will be extinct by 2019. We have to act.
I dubbed this group the Tall Boy Gang.
The underlying theme here is people-wildlife interactions. Successful conservation requires multidisciplinary and multi-pronged approaches that involve local people. If people do not buy into the conservation effort, then ultimately it is unlikely to succeed. So, in addition to better understanding the giraffe, we need to work in partnership with those communities living alongside giraffes to understand their cultural heritage, needs, desires, and goals. We need to offer poachers alternative, robust, and growing livelihoods and sources of income. We need to offer quality education to local communities. We need to offer sustainable sources of protein, and we need to collaboratively develop land and wildlife management plans. The holy grail? Make a living giraffe worth more to local communities than a dead one. By doing that, the rest takes care of itself.
That is what our team of community-based conservation educators with the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research does. So, in short, let’s stick our necks out and stand tall for giraffes! In partnerships with local communities, we’ll roll our sleeves up and get about researching and working to raise awareness and appreciation for the conservation of the majestic giraffe.
You can help us bring giraffes back from the brink by supporting the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy. Together we can save and protect wildlife around the globe. Let’s do this! Happy World Giraffe Day!
Check out a short film from reticulated giraffe conservation fieldwork in Kenya:
David A. O’Connor, M.Sc., is a consultant with the Conservation Education Division of the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read his previous post, California BioBlitzin’.