The New World of the Gentle Giraffe
Have you been following the news lately? If so, you may have heard that giraffes were recently declared “vulnerable”. This unwelcome news is shocking to many. It may also be a little confusing. What is “vulnerable” exactly? Is it the same as endangered? And perhaps most important of all, what happened to bring us to this point?
The answers to these questions are both complex and surprisingly simple. To be vulnerable is to be endangered, or at the least, to be in the early stages of endangerment. As to how it happened? It happened the same way it always happens; a combination of factors mostly having to do with a conflict with human populations and our widespread impacts.
First off, it’s important to understand that when it comes to discussions of endangered species, there are many bureaucracies and agencies in play, ranging from non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) to national institutions like the United States Department of Fish and Wildlife. Each of these entities has their own specific designations and processes used to assess when a given species is in danger of extinction. Among these varied organizations, there’s one agency in particular that has become the primary arbiter of assessing species sustainability: the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
The IUCN maintains a database of plant and animal species. Within this database, they utilize carefully researched and tabulated data to determine the overall vitality of individual species. Once the IUCN has assessed a species, they assign it a classification. Species in no real danger of extinction are declared to be species of “least concern” (think human beings, raccoons, and rats). From there the ranking descends through the categories of near threatened (American bison), vulnerable (giraffe and elephant), endangered (ring-tailed lemur), critically endangered (black rhinoceros), extinct in the wild (scimitar horned oryx), and finally, extinct (dodo birds).
The recent development in the world of the giraffe was a downgrading from “least concern” to “vulnerable.” It is terrible to learn that giraffes are doing so poorly in the world, but this is actually good news for the species for the simple reason that with a change in conservation status comes the possibility of beneficial regulation and legislation.
Prior to this momentous down-listing from “least concern” straight through “near threatened” to “vulnerable,” the giraffe was a species largely ignored by the conservation community. As big, fairly visible animals, they are easier to find on safaris and game drives than the elusive and rare predators like lions and leopards. They are seldom targeted by poachers like elephants and rhinos. They’ve been common spectacles on African game drives for a long time and for these reasons and more, we’ve been largely blind to their nearly universal decline.
But decline they have. As of 1985, the total giraffe population was estimated at somewhere between 151,000 and 163,000 animals. Today the number is closer to 97,000. That’s a nearly 40% decline in three decades! To provide some context to these numbers, let’s compare to another megafauna species; the heavily poached African elephant. African elephants face tremendous persecution across their range and are also classified as “vulnerable” and yet as of mid-2016, they number roughly 352,000. That’s nearly four wild elephants for every wild giraffe left in existence. This leaves us with two questions: what has been happening, and why didn’t we know it was happening earlier?
The second question is the easier to answer. We did know earlier. While much of the world has been blind to the decline of the giraffe, there have been canaries in the coal mine. One of the most strident voices in trying to wake the world up to the decline of the giraffe has been that of the Giraffe Conservation Foundation and its founders Dr. Julian and Stephanie Fenessey. The GCF has been working on giraffe conservation for years and has been sounding the alarm for the majority of that time. They’ve done amazing work but as with any large scale issue—from cigarettes to climate change—the world has been slow to respond.
In order for an organization like the IUCN to reclassify a species, there must be a reservoir of empirical data driving the change. This means that scientists must first be interested in the species in question and capable of gaining funding for research. Data must be collected, analyzed, and published; a process that can take years or decades. Only once a suitable amount of data has been compiled can the IUCN begin reassessment. The recent down-listing of the giraffe marks the first reassessment by the IUCN of this species since 2010 and the first change in conservation status since 1996.
The complexities of trying to count animals and determine the challenges affecting their survival across a continent and national borders can be extreme. Inference and approximation come into play and this effects the IUCN assessment as well. While the down-listing of the giraffe may be long overdue, it’s not something that could have been rushed without sacrificing scientific integrity. This fact more than any other illustrates why it is important for policy makers and concerned citizens to pay attention to current events in concert with organizations like the IUCN when it comes to conservation practices. The “endangered” appellation is a bit like declaring a disaster after the fire or earthquake has struck. It’s reactionary rather than proactive.
The reasons why giraffes have declined so dramatically is another complex, yet a fairly straightforward story. There are four primary factors limiting the survivability of the species. The first is habitat loss. Deforestation and land conversion for agriculture and mining are occurring across the range of the giraffe. As forests disappear, so too do the giraffe. As large animals, they are disproportionately affected by this habitat loss. They are specialized creatures that rely heavily on acacia trees for their food. While they eat over 100 species of plant, acacia makes up the majority of giraffe diet and when these trees go, the animals do too.
A second factor affecting the giraffe is overall climate change. Many parts of Africa are growing drier which leads to a higher incidence of brush and forest fires. This leads to increased habitat loss on top of the acreage lost to human development. Likewise, as drought causes human dislocation, populations on the move frequently relocate to protected areas or regions where giraffe are already living. When there’s conflict or competition for resources between human beings and giraffe, the humans inevitably come out on top.
The third factor relates to widespread civil unrest and war taking place across much of Africa. In regions with roving militias or refugees on the move, a large, generally slow moving giraffe makes for an excellent source of needed calories.
The closely related fourth factor is poaching. An increasing number of giraffe are shot illegally, their bodies left largely intact but for their tails. The tails are removed and sold either as good luck charms or status symbols, much like the lucky rabbit’s feet of the western tradition, except that unlike rabbits, giraffes take four to five years to reach sexual maturity and produce at most one new giraffe every two to two-and-a-half years. Long-lived, slow breeding animals like giraffe simply cannot sustain losses on this scale for long.
On the whole, these factors add up to one overarching problem; conflict with humans. As our population increases across the globe, the populations of our wild neighbors necessarily decrease. But the issues coming to light with giraffe can be instructive and ultimately, hopeful. While we lament their decline, they’re not gone yet. We still have time to act, to provide policies to protect the species and establish places for them to thrive. As ecotourism continues to grow and develop throughout Africa, it becomes more and more compelling to establish reserves in which many species can live and reproduce largely free of human interference. Likewise, developments in agriculture and land use are helping to mitigate conflicts between farmers, ranchers, and miners, and their long-necked neighbors.
The news about the reassessment of giraffes also gives us cause to hope because it is being framed, not only as a tragic example of yet another animal that’s in danger of extinction but as a discussion about the process of classification and meaning of the word “endangered.” As a population, we appear to be growing more sophisticated and nuanced in our understanding of the natural world and its patterns. With focus and determination, we will continue to improve our ability to recognize population declines and preemptively act to conserve species before they experience thirty or forty percent losses.
The bad news for the giraffe is that they’re now classified as vulnerable, but the good news is that with that classification comes increased attention and conservation action. The even better news is that giraffes are already universally recognized and popular, meaning that widespread support and efforts toward their conservation shouldn’t be as difficult to motivate as it is with more obscure species.
To show your support for these beautiful and graceful creatures, consider making a donation to hard-working organizations like the Giraffe Conservation Foundation. The best hope for giraffe lies in our communal concern and interest in their well-being. Please join us in working to conserve this unique and irreplaceable species.