Voices for Biodiversity
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Giraffes Await the World's Protection

Nubian giraffe in Murchison Falls NP, Uganda (c) Fennessy, Giraffe Conservation Fund)

Picture an animal enrobed in a fiery, jigsaw-patterned coat, a creature of such majestic height that it towers amongst the trees. As your eyes make their way up its long neck that appears to defy gravity, you find its head crowned with two Seussian horn-like protrusions that frame dark, curious eyes. In its truest sense, the giraffe fits the description of a creature plucked from the pages of a fantastical story. Even its species name, Giraffa camelopardalis, comes from the ancient Greek belief that the giraffe is a peculiar camel, wearing the coat of a leopard.

Today, we continue to be charmed to walk the Earth with these awe-inspiring creatures who range across much of Africa. But, much like their serene composure, giraffes are facing what many are calling a “silent extinction.” Public awareness and global action is critically overdue. “These gentle giants have been overlooked,” appeals Sir David Attenborough, in BBC’s Story of Life 2016 documentary series, urging that “time is running out.”

The sharp decline in the numbers of giraffes over the past three decades led to an official change in their conservation status in December 2016. The entire giraffe species was “uplisted” from Least Concern to Vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List. The IUCN qualifies the uplisting of giraffes by citing an ongoing population decline of 36-40 percent over three generations in the 30 years between 1985 and 2015. This represents a change from approximately 110,000 mature individuals in 1985 down to just over 68,000 in 2015.

Young South African giraffe in Botswana's Okavango Delta (c) J. Fennessy, Giraffe Conservation Fund.

It’s important to note that this population count is of mature individual giraffes, and that giraffe reproduction is inherently slow to replace lost population. A long gestation period of 15 months typically yields only one calf, and those calves are vulnerable to predation by wild dogs, hyenas, leopards and lions. Approximately 50 to 75 percent of all young giraffes perish due to predation. Only one out of four survive into adulthood, giving giraffes one of the highest mortality rates among animals.

Giraffes’ updated conservation listing is “a wake-up call,” and “giraffe scientists and conservation NGOs [non-governmental organizations] are all working to raise awareness of the giraffe crisis and prevent it,” comments Tanya Sanerib, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. Increasingly, word is getting out about the strife giraffes are facing, and a small, committed cohort is fighting for the species. They are diligently working in the field to learn more about the species and their populations, collaborating with communities to conserve their wildlife, and working with governments to preserve land. Others are championing for giraffes on the legal front lines, advocating for better national and international protections.

In April 2017, a legal petition was filed by the Center for Biological Diversity, Humane Society International, The Humane Society of the United States, International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) to protect giraffes under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). An endangered listing under the ESA would ban most imports and sales of giraffe trophies, bone carvings and other giraffe “products.” If the petition passes and giraffes gain protection under the ESA, the measure will lead the global community to take further actions to protect this unique species. The 90-day review period has long passed and the USFWS decision on the petition is still pending.

Angolan giraffe family in Damaraland, NW Namibia (c) Fennessy, Giraffe Conservation Fund.)

Despite uplisting the conservation status of giraffes in 2010, greater international protection for giraffes in regards to the trade in their parts (e.g., trophies, skins, bones) has not taken place. Effectively, the giraffe does not currently benefit from the international protections that a gorilla might. The design of the classification is to inform the public of their status in the wild, and the duty to act is in the hands of African governments and international bodies. Dr. Julian Fennessy of Giraffe Conservation Foundation (GCF) asserts, “if we get government support, that's the backbone of making any decisions in any of these countries.” The GCF is doing just that by working closely with governments to develop national strategies and implement activities to benefit giraffe populations. 

The IUCN assessment is: “Some giraffe populations are stable or increasing, while others are declining, and each population is subject to pressure by threats specific to their local country or region.” 

To better understand the giraffe story, we have to delve into the dynamics of human impact and the complicated nature of the nine giraffe subspecies. Overall giraffe populations are on a downward trend, and some specific giraffe subspecies are suffering worse still. The Masai giraffe population — the tallest of the subspecies, with a darker, star-shaped pattern coat — has halved in the aforementioned 30-year period. The population of reticulated giraffe, with their bright, neatly patterned coats, has declined nearly 80 percent in the same period. Only 400 West African giraffes remain in Niger, and the East African Nubian giraffes number at roughly 650. Today, giraffes have been wiped out and are locally extinct in at least seven African countries, and have vanished from most of West Africa.

West African giraffe mother & calf Niger (c) Fennessy, Giraffe Conservation Fund.)

Giraffe status varies throughout the continent; in fact, in some countries, it’s not all bad news, as certain populations are actually increasing. Dr. Derek Lee at Wild Nature Institute, an organization that works to research and conserve giraffes and their habitat in Tanzania, tells us: “a few small populations are growing ... they were almost wiped out, down to a few hundred or few thousand individuals, and after being protected they are now increasing.” He points out that “giraffes are raised like cattle” in South Africa and “the populations are increasing.” In South Africa, giraffe breeding has become standard practice, supplying giraffe as a commodity for legal game hunting and tourism.

According to Dr. Fennessy, Namibia has “wildlife management practices whereby communities will benefit ... that's what has really enabled the [giraffe] population to grow a lot in southern Africa.” He further highlights that legal hunting of giraffes in Zimbabwe, South Africa and Namibia occurs where the populations are increasing: “In those countries, compared to many other areas of Africa, the population of giraffe is increasing, not decreasing.” This southern region of Africa, including Botswana, accounts for 50 percent of all the giraffe population on the continent.

Kirstie Ruppert works on giraffe conservation in Kenya for San Diego Zoo Global and finds that, “Even though there's been [a] pretty rapid decline of giraffe[s] in the last 20 years, I think there's been heightened conservation attention given [the] recent scientific work done, with genetic analysis, to suggest that giraffe are actually multiple species.” She reminds us that this research “shines a light on how little we know about a species that is so iconic and how little we know relative to other big species.”

Angolan giraffe herd in Damaraland, NW Namibia 2 (c) Fennessy, Giraffe Conservation Fund. 

This is an interesting part of the giraffe tale and one that is a possible game-changer: the “giraffe” as we know it may be a composite of several species. This research has been ongoing and indicates that giraffes may actually be made up of four to seven separate and genetically distinct species.

Currently, giraffes are recognized as one species with nine subspecies. Each subspecies is visually distinguishable by their different coat patterns. Dr. Fennessy comments that giraffes are “so much more unique than many species out there that do interbreed and have viable offspring.” Biologists find that giraffes will not associate or interbreed with other subspecies. In Kenya, for example, three species coexist — Masai, reticulated and Nubian giraffe. They are similar and may encounter one another, but each subspecies maintain a unique genetic makeup and do not interbreed.

This genetic finding could be cause to separate the species taxonomically, which would rapidly merit protections to some giraffes under international law. Should giraffes be divided into four (or six or nine) species, some giraffe populations could be instantly listed as Endangered and others even as Critically Endangered. This move would present a massive turning point for giraffes.

Nubian giraffe calf and mother, Murchison Falls National Park (c) Fennessy, Giraffe Conservation Fund.

Still, within the scientific community, the debate continues about whether giraffes should be classified as more than one species. Changing their classification would “be a very slow process, and more work on classical taxonomy will be required before initiating this change,” says Stephanie Fennessy, co-director of the Giraffe Conservation Foundation. In the face of these debates and bureaucratic hurdles, unique giraffe subspecies are under dire threat of extinction — and international law is not protecting them accordingly.

In 2007, Dr. David Brown, a biologist who did an extensive genetic study on giraffes, found that “lumping all giraffes into one species obscures the reality that some kinds of giraffe are on the brink. Some of these populations number only a few hundred individuals and need immediate protection.” Ten years later, international protection is still lacking. Dr. Julian Fennessy adds that “if they [giraffe] are quite distinct, then we should be managing it appropriately. 

So, what is ultimately leading to the decline of giraffes? The expected answer is the same for the majority of species the world over: human pressures. The IUCN outlines that giraffe decline across the continent is due to habitat loss, civil unrest, illegal hunting/poaching, and ecological changes (namely, mining activity and climate change). In each country and region, the threats can be dire and may include a combination of these factors. 

Young South African giraffe, Botswana's Okavango Delta (c) Fennessy, Giraffe Conservation Fund. 

Coexistence between humans and wildlife is a palpable issue in biodiverse regions across the globe. Giraffe are a species that do little to disrupt human livelihood as compared to lions, and the “establishment of community conservancies [in Kenya] really has given a lot of hope for coexistence between pastoralist people in this region and wildlife,” Ruppert says.

Meanwhile, in Uganda, there is a growing interest in oil exploration, right in the heart of the giraffe’s range. As a preventative measure, GCF and the Uganda Wildlife Authority “translocated,” or moved, a giraffe population across the Nile to protect them from the potential impacts of prospective oil mining. This remarkable operation is an example of the important work being done to protect the vulnerable subspecies, in this case the Rothschild’s and Nubian giraffes.

No longer an issue reserved for polar bears living at the edge of the planet, climate change is now impacting giraffes as well. Across Africa and other parts of the world, climate change impacts vegetation through desertification — a process by which fertile land becomes desert — negatively impacting people and wildlife alike. As Kirstie Ruppert describes, “in the past year, Kenya really faced an extreme drought and is still in the midst of it.” She points out that “when [giraffes] face extreme drought in these places, the regeneration of grass for livestock and for wildlife species is really compromised.” This puts pressure not only on access to food for wildlife, but also forces people to resort to illegally hunt wildlife for bushmeat. And as smaller ungulates (hoofed animals such as gazelle) perish from increased drought, lion predation turns to giraffe young. Ruppert furthers, “climate change — at least, extreme drought and connecting that to climate change — is one of the most pressing challenges in this region that we're facing on a daily basis.”

Reticulated giraffe in Samburu NP, Kenya 2 -® Fennessy, Giraffe Conservation Fund. 

“Across central Africa and parts of eastern Africa, poaching has been a really big threat in recent years,” asserts Dr. Fennessy. In Kenya and Tanzania, giraffes are experiencing dramatic increases in illegal killing for their meat. These are regions where giraffe numbers are already under considerable strain and where multiple unique subspecies are present.

Especially in times of civil unrest or drought, giraffe poaching drastically increases as one giraffe supplies a considerable amount of food. Civil and economic struggles take a deep toll, not only on people but also on all the species of those regions. Illegal hunting is unquestionably emerging as a real threat to the species.TRAFFIC, a leading NGO working to ensure that the global trade of wild animals and plants does not threaten conservation, is prioritizing giraffes as a subject in their investigative work and is planning “to carry out work on giraffe trade in parts of East Africa, in response to the rising number of reports we've encountered of giraffe parts in trade.”

While illegal hunting is becoming a greater issue, some in the field, including Tanya Sanerib, argue that legal hunting is also contributing to the decline of giraffes.

Nubian giraffe, Murchison Falls NP, Uganda2 (c) Fennessy, Giraffe Conservation Fund.

Legal trophy hunting for all species continues to give rise to heated debate in the conservation community over whether it is a viable conservation tool. “Well-managed, trophy hunting is a form of sustainable use that can provide direct income and benefits from wildlife resources to local communities,” says Dr. Richard Thomas of TRAFFIC. The key term here is “well-managed.” The IUCN supports trophy hunting and finds that “with effective governance and management, trophy hunting can and does have positive impacts.”

Some make the argument that legal hunting benefits local communities. However, evidence to the contrary is increasingly being found. The Humane Society International and Economists at Large prepared a report in 2013 and found that in the studied African countries (Botswana, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe) “trophy hunting brings in just 0.78 percent or less of the overall tourism spending” and provides a modest impact on job creation, amounting to only “approximately 0.76 percent or less of overall tourism jobs.” In the end, the economic value of trophy hunting for these countries is only an estimated 0.03 percent of gross domestic product (GDP).

Other in-depth studies challenge the efficacy of trophy hunting as a conservation tool. These include the growing evidence that legal trophy hunting causes deep genetic repercussions for species and engenders illegal hunting and other wildlife crimes.

Photo credit (c) J Fennessy, Giraffe Conservation Fund. 

In January 2016, Conservation Action Trust conducted an extensive study on the impact of legal trophy hunting of five iconic species — elephants, rhinoceroses, leopards, cheetahs and lions — in six African countries, namely South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique, Namibia and Tanzania. They found that there is an “extremely close link between legal hunting and poaching” and that “trophy hunting is an activity that fuels corruption, it encourages the unfair redistribution of the wealth generated without adequate involvement of communities, causes the loss of healthy individuals that are still key for reproduction and social cohesion and, most damagingly, contributes to the decline [of species].” The remaining populations are compromised in their genetic health. The tendency in poorly regulated legal hunting is to target large, healthy males in the prime of their reproductive years, which negatively impacts the health of future populations.

A recent study published by researchers at Queen Mary, University of London, in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences finds that trophy hunting coupled with climate change is pushing some species to the brink of extinction. The study, led by Dr. Rob Knell, suggests that trophy hunting has a bias to select males in their peak physical form — such as a deer prized for having the largest antlers or a giraffe with the most majestic height. The researchers predict that taking out just 5 percent of top males puts a serious strain on the species’ survival, especially in the context of other challenging conditions such as climate change and habitat fragmentation. The overall conclusion found that trophy hunting “should be managed with extreme care whenever populations are faced with changing conditions.”

Specific to giraffes, more research needs to be done to determine the extent of the impact of hunting on population numbers and species health. Dr. William Crosmary from TRAFFIC finds that, based on the data — if, he qualifies, that data is indeed accurate — “it is unlikely that [legal] trophy hunting has a significant impact on giraffe population dynamics.” He pivots, “however, the sustainability of trophy hunting on giraffe must be assessed locally, as the status of giraffe populations and harvest rates differ from one hunting area to another.”

Nubian giraffe herd in Murchison Falls NP, Uganda (c) Fennessy, Giraffe Conservation Fund. 

In a study released in fall of 2017, the Institute for Security Studies provides further evidence that legal hunting may be leading to illicit crimes against wildlife. They find that between 2000 and 2016, South Africa had the most recorded incidents of poaching and wildlife crime, followed by Zimbabwe and Namibia. Incidentally, these are the same three countries where giraffe hunting is legal. It is from these countries that U.S. and other nationals legally export giraffe parts, including bones, skins and trophies, into their respective countries. Some conservationists openly theorize that some giraffe are illegally hunted in one region and their parts are then exported under legal guise as if from a game hunting park. Naturally, gathering comprehensive documentation on this has proven to be difficult and has yet to be done. 

The foreign nationals who visit Africa to legally hunt giraffes are from many countries: the U.S., Germany and Spain are the top three, with Russian numbers on the rise, as analyzed by Dr. Richard Thomas of TRAFFIC.

Tanya Sanerib observes that “giraffes are not protected under CITES [Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species]” and “we know that the U.S. is a significant importer of giraffe trophies.” Between 2006 and 2015, the U.S. imported 374 giraffe trophies per year on average. That is more than one giraffe every day. The Center for Biological Diversity and their co-sponsors on the petition to protect giraffes under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) find that the international trade in giraffes is contributing to their decline.

Angolan giraffe herd in Damaraland, NW Namibia (c) Fennessy, Giraffe Conservation Fund.

Sanerib explains: “The Endangered Species Act is one of the most effective tools for species conservation. Given the significant imports to the U.S. of giraffe bones, bone carvings, skins and trophies, the U.S. is undeniably a part of the decline of giraffes, and an ESA listing would raise awareness about this fact and increase scrutiny of our imports.”

Dr. Lee supports this action: “I think we need to use every available tool to conserve endangered species and the habitats they rely upon. The ESA is one such tool that has proven itself extremely effective at helping save endangered species, so I am optimistic that it can help giraffes as well.”

Others in the field, however, including Dr. Fennessy and Dr. Rosie Cooney of IUCN Sustainable Use and Livelihoods Specialist Group, don’t agree that placing giraffes under the ESA is appropriate. Dr. Fennessy shares: “I think the issue is not black and white. Nor is a blanket policy appropriate for a whole continent.” Dr. Cooney shrewdly points out that where hunting is legal, giraffe populations are actually increasing — the fact that populations are increasing is a “major piece of evidence that counteracts the argument made that trophy hunting is a threat to giraffes.” It is important to note, however, that it is giraffe breeding that is leading to those increased numbers.

Dr. Julian Fennessy says that “no one is having any impact on the giraffe population by legal trophy hunting, full stop. It's false.”

Angolan giraffes drinking in Hoanib River, NW Namibia (c) Fennessy, Giraffe Conservation Fund.

However, it appears that not enough research has been done to prove whether giraffes are safe from corrupt forms of legal hunting. Cases from other species offer evidence that legal hunting can indeed brew corruption. The elephant decline in Tanzania is one such an example. In Tanzania — where elephant trophy hunting is legal and heavily funded by IUCN and NGOs such as WWF (World Wildlife Fund) — elephant populations fell 60 percent in just five years, from 110,000 in 2009 to 43,000 in 2014, and are now at risk of local extinction. In response, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife (USFWS) banned the import of elephant trophies from Tanzania in 2014 because they found that “questionable management practices, a lack of effective law enforcement, and weak governance have resulted in uncontrolled poaching and catastrophic population declines.”

David Hayes, former Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, oversaw the regulation of sport-hunted trophy imports under President Clinton and President Obama. He made a statement to NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit in 2015: “There was evidence that, under the guise of a hunting concession, international traffickers were coming into the country that was covered by its concession and wiping out elephants” He shared that “There was no sport hunting involved. It was essentially a massacre of elephants that was occurring.”

Given the USFWS’s limited staff, other such infractions could be happening in Africa without their awareness. Hayes believes “it’s certainly possible.” A similar scenario could be occurring with giraffes, and little is currently known about the impact legal hunting is having on their population numbers.

Nubian giraffe bulls necking, Murchison Falls National Park (c) Fennessy, Giraffe Conservation Fund.

In the meantime, Sanerib believes gaining giraffe protection under the ESA is an important starting point as it “will lend further scrutiny to this trade and ensure it is not harmful to the species’ continued existence.”

Being well passed the 90-day mark for making their initial decision on the giraffe petition, the USFWS may decide any day whether placing giraffes under the protection of the ESA may be warranted, which would trigger further review and action. 

Segments of the conservation community that support the move eagerly await the USFWS decision, which they believe could catalyze a global movement to enact greater protections for giraffes.

Until then, in an important step that took place this past fall, the Parties to the Convention on Migratory Species (CMC) decided to protect giraffes under the international treaty CMS Appendix II. This calls for the establishment of agreements to protect and restore species habitat, as giraffe are documented as a migratory species that periodically and cyclically cross international borders. Of course, it is up to each nation to effectively enforce and enact their agreement to protect the giraffe species.

Angolan giraffe bull, NW Namibia (c) Fennessy, Giraffe Conservation Fund. 

Considerable strides are being made to learn more about giraffes and enact measures to protect them, from elevating their conservation status and legally protecting the species under international treaty to on-the-ground collaborations with local communities. Meanwhile, it is still pending whether giraffes are to be legally protected by external nations, such as the U.S., that import their parts. 

The stakeholders who have influence on how species are protected, however, don’t always agree and decisions can be left at a standstill, leaving species at the mercy of a continuous human debate. A public forum in which a broader set of voices can weigh in is long overdue — and necessary for global action.

Angolan giraffe in the desert, Hoanib River, NW Namibia (c) Fennessy, Giraffe Conservation Fund. 

Experts from all perspectives find that the future of giraffes depends on a variety of complicated elements. But when simplified to its core, giraffes capture us with their remarkable presence. To lose this species would be an atrocity. 

“I think giraffes capture our imaginations to begin with, but the more we learn about these animals, the more fascinating they become,” shares Sanerib. “Raising awareness about the decline of giraffes is so important — we have to halt their decline before it is too late.” 

This is just the beginning of a giraffe recovery. Growing concern over their decline will hopefully propel the public to call on NGOs, governments, scientists, communities and advocates to come together to protect and elevate this remarkable species so that it may thrive once again. 

Parts of this article were previously published by Earth Island Journal. The Photographs in this article belong to the Giraffe Conservation Fund and cannot be reproduced without permission.

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