The World’s Tallest Creature Is Heading for a Fall

Plunging giraffe numbers have led the IUCN to declare it vulnerable to extinction.

Credit: sharmzpad/Flickr

Tall, lots of spots, long neck—the giraffe needs no introduction. In fact, it’s probably one of the most recognizable species on earth. This brand recognition, however, has done little to protect the animal, whose numbers have dropped from a million in the early 1900s to just around 90,000 today. Earlier this month, the International Union for Conservation of Nature declared the species vulnerable to extinction.

A decline of 40 percent over the past three generations is the reason for the giraffe’s two-level status drop from “species of least concern.” Though the gangly beasts were once common across the African continent and can live in various habitats from savanna to forest to desert, scientists believe they’ve already disappeared from several countries, including Burkina Faso, Eritrea, Guinea, Mali, Mauritania, Nigeria, and Senegal.

People are giraffes’ number one threat. After all, human settlements usually come with habitat destruction, as wild areas are converted into farms, timber plots, mines, and oil drill sites. Civil unrest in Africa has also taken its toll on giraffe populations, with guerilla armies often resorting to killing these big, gentle animals for food. But the illegal, and sometimes accidental, hunting of giraffes is a serious issue in times of peace, too.

How does an average person take down an animal that stands 19 feet tall and weighs as much as a Honda Civic? It’s a lot easier than you probably think; all it takes is some wire. Rangers in the Ugandan parks system, for instance, have confiscated hundreds upon hundreds of homemade snares, spears, and bear traps from the giraffe habitats they protect. The devices aren’t usually meant for giraffes—more often they’re intended for small game animals—but they’ll catch anything that walks by. A leg snare can lead to infection or dismemberment—and for animals that cannot escape its grip, starvation.

Some giraffes may be in even more danger than the “vulnerable” designation suggests. While giraffe numbers as a whole have dropped 40 percent, if you look at discrete populations of giraffes, such as the endangered Rothschild’s giraffes profiled in this recent onEarth In-Depth story, the outlook is bleaker.

A team of biologists and geneticists published a study in September arguing that what we consider one giraffe species is actually four—G. camelopardalis, G. reticulata, G. tippelskirchi, and G. giraffa. On the basis of genetic testing, these four distinct species break down into five subspecies numbering fewer than 35,000 each. This makes the chances of losing any one species, which do not appear to interbreed in the wild, all the greater.

The IUCN declined to clarify why it didn’t take this most recent genetic study into account, but in a statement it said: “Until an extensive reassessment of the taxonomic status of giraffes is completed, it is premature to alter the taxonomic status quo.”

In any event, it’s clear that we’re not doing enough to save these strange and lovely creatures. The IUCN World Conservation Congress acknowledged as much in November when it adopted a resolution calling for renewed attention and support for the world’s remaining giraffes. If we fail, it won’t matter whether there are four species, one, or a hundred.

This article was originally published on onEarth, which is no longer in publication. onEarth was founded in 1979 as the Amicus Journal, an independent magazine of thought and opinion on the environment. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. This article is available for online republication by news media outlets or nonprofits under these conditions: The writer(s) must be credited with a byline; you must note prominently that the article was originally published by and link to the original; the article cannot be edited (beyond simple things such grammar); you can’t resell the article in any form or grant republishing rights to other outlets; you can’t republish our material wholesale or automatically—you need to select articles individually; you can’t republish the photos or graphics on our site without specific permission; you should drop us a note to let us know when you’ve used one of our articles.

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