Most woodcutting is prohibited in the giraffe zone. But Lt. Col. Kimba Ousseini, commander of the Nigerien government's Environmental Protection Brigade, says people break the law, despite penalties of between 20,000 and 300,000 CFA francs (approximately $40 to $600) as well as imprisonment. He estimates that 10 to 15 people are fined each year. Yet wood is used to heat houses and fuel cookfires, and stacks and stacks of spindly branches are for sale at the side of the road to Niamey.
When you walk alongside the towering giraffes, close enough to hear the swish-swish of their tails as they gambol past, it's hard not to be indignant about the destruction of their habitat. But Zarma villagers cut down trees because they have few other ways to make money. They live off their crops and are totally dependent on the rainy season to irrigate their millet fields. "Of course they understand why they shouldn't do it!" Ousseini says. "But they tell us they need the money to survive."
The ASGN is trying to help the giraffes by making small loans to villagers and promoting tourism and other initiatives. In the village of Kanaré, women gathered near a well constructed with ASGN funds. By bringing aid to the region in the name of protecting giraffes, ASGN hopes the villagers will see the animals as less of a threat to their livelihood. A woman named Amina, who has six children and was sitting in the shade on a wire-and-metal chair, says she benefited from an ASGN microloan that enabled her to buy goats and sheep, which she fattened and sold. "Giraffes have brought happiness here," Amina says in Zarma through an interpreter. "Their presence brings us lots of things."
At the same time, giraffes can be a nuisance. They occasionally eat crops such as niebe beans, which look like black-eyed peas and are crushed into flour. (We ate tasty niebe-flour beignets for breakfast in a village called Harikanassou, where we spent the night on thin mattresses under mosquito nets.) Giraffes splay their legs and bend their long necks to eat mature beans right before harvest. They also forage on the succulent orange mangoes that ripen temptingly at giraffe-eye height.
The villager's feelings about the giraffes, from what I gather after speaking with them, are not unlike what people in my small town in southern Oregon feel about deer and elk: they admire the animals from a distance but turn against them if they raid their gardens. "If we leave our niebe in the fields, the giraffes will eat it," explains Ali Hama, the village chief of Yedo. "We've had problems with that. So now we harvest it and bring it into the village to keep it away from the giraffes." Despite having to do this extra step, Hama says his villagers appreciate the giraffes because the animals have brought development to the region.
Unlike giraffes in other parts of Africa, Niger's giraffes have no animal predators. But they face other dangers. During the rainy season, giraffes often come to the Kollo road, about 40 miles east of Niamey, to nibble on shrubs that spring from the hard orange earth. On two occasions in 2006, a bush taxi hit and killed a giraffe at dusk. No people were injured, but the deaths were a significant loss to the small animal population. Villagers feasted on the one-ton animals.
The Niger government outlaws the killing of giraffes, and Col. Abdou Malam Issa, a Ministry of the Environment official, says the administration spends about $40,000 annually on anti-poaching enforcement. In addition, Niger has received money from environmental groups around the world to support the giraffes. As a result, giraffes face little danger of being killed as long as they stay within Niger. But when a group of seven peraltas strayed into Nigeria in 2007, government officials from Niger were unable to alert Nigerian officials quickly enough. Villagers killed one of the giraffes and ate it.
Niger's government hasn't always been disposed to help the giraffes. In 1996, after seizing power in a coup d'état, Ibrahim Baré Mainassara wanted to give two giraffes each to the presidents of Burkina Faso and Nigeria. When the forestry service refused to help him capture the giraffes, Baré sent in the army. More than 20 giraffes were killed, out of a total population of fewer than 60. "We lost 30 percent of the herd," says Ciofolo, who was working in the field at that time. In 2002, President Mamadou Tandja, who was first elected in 1999 and remains in power, set out to give a pair of giraffes to Togo's president. This time the Togolese Army, helped by local villagers and the forestry service, spent three days chasing the giraffes and captured two. One died en route to Togo, and the other after arriving there. Hama Noma, a 27-year-old villager who witnessed the capture, says the giraffes were immobilized with ropes and transported in the back of a truck: "They suffered a lot before they died."
Driving north past a pitted and rusty sign for the town of Niambere Bella, we come across a lone male strutting through the fields. "Number 208!" Suraud cries out. "This is only the second time I've seen him!" We find a group of 16 giraffes, an unusual sight during the dry season. Each one has been identified previously, which makes the research team rejoice. "It means we haven't missed any," says Suraud, clearly pleased. He pats Idé on the back, smiling. The mood is hopeful—at least 21 calves have been born recently, more than expected. And indeed the official results are heartening: 164 giraffes were photographed in 2007, leading the researchers to estimate that the population is around 175 individuals. While that number is dangerously small, it's up from 144 in 2006 and represents a 250 percent increase since 1996. Suraud says he is optimistic about the herd.
Julian Fennessy, a founding member of the International Giraffe Working Group of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, projects that a minimum of 400 giraffes of a variety of ages is needed for a viable peralta population. Whether the mostly desert climate of this part of West Africa can support the growing number remains to be seen; some giraffe researchers have even suggested that the giraffes might be better off in a wildlife refuge. But Ciofolo points out that the nearest reserve in Niger has unsuitable vegetation—and lions. "In my opinion, giraffes are much better off living where they are now, where they are protected by the local people," she says.