Even some of the world’s most beloved animals can go extinct right in front of our eyes.
That message got hammered home last week when the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) declared that the iconic giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis) has now been listed as an endangered species.
More specifically, the IUCN declared the giraffe to be “vulnerable to extinction,” two steps down from its previous listing as a species of “least concern.” According to recent surveys the giraffe’s population has dropped by about 40 percent from more than 150,000 in 1985 to just over 97,000 in 2015, mainly due to factors such as poaching and habitat loss.
Of course, even that doesn’t tell the full story. The IUCN declaration does not yet take into account research published earlier this year which revealed that giraffes may actually be four separate and genetically distinct species. If the IUCN were to adopt this new taxonomy, then all four giraffe species would almost certainly be considered endangered, some critically so.
Going that next step won’t be easy. “That will be a very slow process and more work on classical taxonomy will be required before initiating this change,” says Stephanie Fennessy, director of the Giraffe Conservation Foundation.
What’s important now is less the taxonomic question and more getting the world motivated to protect all of the giraffes that remain. “The fact that the IUCN stuck with the one species for its assessment indicates to me that either science isn’t clear enough on the taxonomic front to declare separate species or that the pressing need to declare giraffes vulnerable and raise awareness about the threats they face was recognized by scientists as being more important than trying to resolve the taxonomic issues,” says Tanya Sanerib, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “I think the take-home message is that we need to fight for the conservation of giraffes first and save all of these exceptional animals that we can so there’s time for the deep dive into learning about these remarkable mammals before we lose any more.”
Although conservationists have been sounding the alarm for giraffes for the past few years—“Extinction Countdown” first covered their population drop in 2014—the fact that these gentle giants are now endangered appears to have come as quite a shock to the world. Last week’s announcement generated coverage from just about every major media outlet, as well as sad comments throughout social media.
Along with the news, many people asked how we failed to see this coming. The answer to that question is that in many ways, the giraffe’s own high recognition value worked against it. Giraffes are so commonly seen in zoos, artwork, nature documentaries and safaris that even conservationists tend to think that the animals are actually plentiful. It’s the exact opposite of “out of sight, out of mind”—we see giraffes so often that we did not recognize the fact that they were actually disappearing.
The IUCN declaration doesn’t bestow any new protections to the giraffe. That’s now up to the governments of Africa and the world. As Dr. Julian Fennessy, director of the Giraffe Conservation Foundation, said in a prepared statement, “it is timely that we stick our necks out for giraffe before it is too late.”