The rarest of the nine giraffe subspecies, the West African giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis peralta), almost didn't make it to the 21st century. After years of being poached and losing habitat to development, only 50 of these animals were left in Niger in 1996, and the subspecies's future seemed bleak.

But today, just 13 years later, there are more than 200 West African giraffes, a 400 percent increase, and the subspecies looks like it will not only survive, but thrive.

So what brought about this rare conservation success? First of all, the government of Niger created strict regulations against poaching, which they actually enforced (a rarity in many African countries). Niger also recognized the benefit of ecotourism, and saw that having the last population of these giraffes could be an income-generating opportunity.

Second, conservation groups helped garner support for the giraffes from local villagers through a unique program of microloans. With the benefit of several other organizations, the Association to Safeguard the Giraffes of Niger teaches locals why giraffes are important, and then gives them loans if they pledge to be "pro-giraffe". In an example cited by the Associated Press, a woman received a $50 loan to buy a lamb. After she raised it to adulthood, she sold it for twice the amount.

Now, the regrowth of this population would not have been possible if the West African giraffe's natural predators (lions) had not already been wiped out by poachers. And as the AP points out, there's still a question of how many giraffes the area can support. As the population expands, the animals tend to wander farther afield. And if they cross the border into neighboring Nigeria, they have no protection there against poachers.

And of course, the people of Niger want to expand and create more economic success for themselves. This could lead to additional habitat loss, which could once again stress this subspecies.

But for now, the West African giraffe can stand tall in Niger and celebrate its rebirth.

Image: West African giraffe, via Wikipedia