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Giraffes Silently Slip Onto the Endangered Species List

Years of habitat destruction and poaching have reduced giraffe numbers by 30 percent, placing them in the vulnerable category for the first time

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The International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the body that administers the world’s official endangered species list, announced yesterday that it was moving the giraffe from a species of Least Concern to Vulnerable status in its Red List of Threatened Species report. That means the animal faces extinction in the wild in the medium-term future if nothing is done to minimize the threats to its life or habitat. The next steps are endangered, critically endangered, extinct in the wild and extinct.

Poaching of elephants and rhinoceros and the illegal trade in pangolins has overshadowed the problems with giraffes in the last decade. But Damian Carrington at The Guardian reports that giraffe numbers have dropped precipitously in the last 31 years, from 157,000 individuals in 1985 to 97,500 at last count.

“Whilst giraffes are commonly seen on safari, in the media and in zoos, people—including conservationists—are unaware that these majestic animals are undergoing a silent extinction,” Julian Fennessy, the co-chair of the IUCN's Species Survival Commission's Giraffe and Okapi Specialist Group says in a press release. “With a decline of almost 40 percent in the last three decades alone, the world's tallest animal is under severe pressure in some of its core ranges across East, Central and West Africa. As one of the world's most iconic animals, it is timely that we stick our neck out for the giraffe before it is too late.”

The giraffes face two main threats, encroachment from cities and towns into their habitat and poaching. Poaching has become increasingly problematic. Some food insecure villagers kill the animals for their meat, but Jani Actman at National Geographic reports many giraffes are slaughtered just for their tails, which are considered a status symbol and have been used as a dowry when asking a bride’s father for his daughters hand in marriage in some cultures.

Patrick Healy at The New York Times reports that red list divides the giraffe into nine subspecies. Five of those subspecies are decreasing in numbers while two populations are increasing and one is stable. West African giraffes, the smallest subspecies, have grown from 50 individuals in the 1990s to about 400 today. But that success took a massive amount of effort from the government of Niger and conservation groups.    

It will take similar efforts throughout the giraffe's wide range to arrest its plummeting numbers. Derek Lee, founder of the Wild Nature Institute who contributed to the IUCN update tells Healy that both poaching and habitat encroachment need to be stopped to save the giraffe. “These are problems everywhere for giraffes,” he says. “You need to stop both threats.”

While increasing funding for anti-poaching efforts can do some good, Lee thinks stopping habitat encroachment is a much more difficult prospect, since it would mean interfering with land development, mining and other economic activities and livelihoods.  

The biggest problem for giraffes, though, may be the lack of attention over the years. “I am absolutely amazed that no one has a clue,” Julian Fennessy, executive director of Giraffe Conservation Foundation tells Sarah Knapton at The Telegraph. “This silent extinction. Some populations less than 400. That is more endangered than any gorilla, or almost any large mammal in the world.”

“There’s a strong tendency to think that familiar species (such as giraffes, chimps, etc.) must be OK because they are familiar and we see them in zoos,” Duke University conservation biologist Stuart Pimm, tells the Associated Press. In fact, giraffes have silently been going extinct across Africa over the last century. The animal is already gone from seven countries, Burkina Faso, Eritrea, Guinea, Malawi, Mauritania, Nigeria and Senegal.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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