giraffesOne of the world's most iconic and beloved animals is quickly disappearing. Fifteen years ago about 140,000 giraffes (Giraffa camelopardalis) roamed the plains and forests of Africa. Today that number has plummeted by more than 40 percent, according to the Giraffe Conservation Foundation (GCF). As with so many other species, the causes of this decline include habitat loss, habitat fragmentation, overhunting and poaching.

Unfortunately, this decline has occurred with little fanfare or public attention. "For comparison's sake, while there are warnings and alarm bells ringing about the imminent extinction of the African elephant as a result of the poaching crisis—a situation not in any way to be minimized—there are an estimated 450,000 African elephants compared to 80,000 giraffe," says Kathleen Garrigan, senior communications officer for the African Wildlife Foundation.

Surprisingly, even scientists haven't given much attention to giraffes until the past five or so years. "We're learning a lot more about their ecology but what we know is still way behind what we know about other species," says David O'Connor, research coordinator with the San Diego Zoo's Institute for Conservation Research. Indeed, a Google Scholar search found fewer than 70 papers about giraffes published so far this decade, compared to 160 for the African elephant (Loxodonta africana).

giraffe subspecies distribution

Giraffe subspecies distribution (Courtesy: Giraffe Conservation Foundation)

Although several organizations have committed work toward protecting giraffes, conservation efforts, as a whole, have lagged behind. Even the GCF, which works throughout the species's range, did not have any full-time employees until this year. Now they have exactly one, its executive director, Julian Fennessy. "Until I started full-time in September there's never been a full-time giraffe conservationist—ever," he says. "Giraffes are the forgotten megafauna. They're really not getting the attention they deserve." As a result, he says, "giraffes are in peril."

When conservationists have paid attention to giraffes, some populations have responded well. For example, the West African giraffe (G.c. peralta), which lives only in Niger, has rebounded from 50 animals in the mid-1990s to 400 today. "That's because the Niger government started to put policies in place to really protect giraffes and backed them up with good governance," Fennessy says. "You can put policies in place but unless you have solid governance and the support of the people, none of that will work."

The protected status in Niger has made a difference not just in population size but also in giraffe behavior. "In Niger now you can get on foot up to 10 or 15 meters from the giraffes, which is remarkable," Fennessy says. That's not the case in other countries such as Tanzania where hunting remains prevalent and the animals run when they see humans hundreds of meters away. "Something's not right in an area if the giraffe are running away on sight or smell," he says.

Why have giraffes been so poorly studied and the threats they face so rarely discussed? "I think they're just overlooked," O'Connor says. "They're so pervasive. Giraffes are everywhere. Look at kids' books, which are full of giraffes. They're always in zoo collections. They're easily visible, so you don't think we have to worry about them. But we do."

The next few years will be critical for giraffes. Fennessy, who also co-chairs the IUCN Giraffe & Okapi Specialist Group, says that he and other researchers are currently pulling together the data needed to quantify the status of the entire giraffe species and all nine subspecies. The information will be used to update the giraffe's listing on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List, which currently assesses the species as of "least concern" but two subspecies as “endangered.” "It's a hell of a lot of work to gather the necessary information," he says. He predicts that several other giraffe subspecies will be recommended for endangered listings next year or the year after. After that maybe the world will finally start to take notice of how endangered these iconic giants have become.

Photo: Vaughan Leiberum via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons license

Previously in Extinction Countdown: