From my safari jeep in South Africa’s Kruger National Park, binoculars aren’t necessary to spot the long, sleek neck of a giraffe through the treetops in the distant bush. The world’s tallest mammal – standing between 14ft and 19ft – is impossible to miss, but somehow it has quietly moved towards extinction without warning.
There are about 117,000 giraffes left in Africa, down nearly 40% from 35 years ago, according to the latest estimates from the Giraffe Conservation Foundation, a Namibia-based nonprofit dedicated to conservation. saving giraffes in the wild. That’s one live giraffe for every three to four elephants. They have completely disappeared from seven African countries, prompting the International Union for Conservation of Nature to sound the alarm and classify them as “vulnerable” in December 2016.
There are four species of giraffe, each living in geographically distinct regions. Some subspecies have been moved to endangered or critically endangered status by the IUCN. There are fewer than 2,000 Kordofan giraffes, a subspecies found across West Africa with small pale yellowish-brown spots that stop on its hips, for example, and around 15,950 reticulated giraffes, a subspecies native to the Horn of Africa that is distinctive for its rich orange color. -brown spots clearly demarcated in white.
The usual factors, including disease, civil unrest and illegal hunting, have contributed to the decline in giraffe numbers. (There are also cultural reasons: some poach them for meat or believe the skin cures cancer, and some view their tails as a status symbol.) But environmental pressures, especially habitat loss, are the main culprits, explains Stephanie Fennessy, director of the Giraffe. Conservation Foundation. Over the past 300 years, giraffes have lost almost 90% of their habitat to human development, including agriculture and infrastructure building, she says.
Although not part of the so-called Big Five safari – elephants, lions, buffaloes, leopards and rhinos – the tall, leggy blondes of the African plains are equally iconic. Yet their impending demise failed to draw attention to the plight of the rhino or the elephant. Celebrities such as Edward Norton and Leonardo DiCaprio have helped raise awareness of the danger to two of Africa’s most poached and trafficked animals, prized for their horns and tusks.
In 2021, the IUCN changed the status of the African Forest Elephant and African Savannah Elephant from Vulnerable to Critically Endangered and Endangered, respectively, finding that there are no remaining than a total of 415,000 individuals on the continent. And three species of rhino – black, Sumatran and Javan – are listed as critically endangered. In recent years, strengthened law enforcement and legislation on trafficking and population relocation programs have halted some declines. Black rhino numbers actually increased at an annual rate of 2.5% between 2012 and 2018.
Giraffes have not been able to muster the same star power. Fennessy says the main reason is that people aren’t aware of the problem. “You’re still likely to spot giraffes in major tourist parks and game reserves like the Serengeti and the Maasai Mara, so people assume they’re popping up all over Africa,” she says. To raise awareness of what Fennessy called a “silent” extinction, the Giraffe Conservation Foundation has designated June 21 World Giraffe Day.
Fennessy’s organization, which works in 17 African countries, has worked with governments and local communities to bring the giraffe back to areas where it had historically thrived. In Uganda, for example, civil unrest decimated the number of Nubian giraffes – which are distinguished by their large rectangular brown spots – to just 250. Cooperation between government, communities and the Giraffe Conservation Foundation has facilitated the translocation of three giraffe populations and increased the number of rare subspecies to over 1,650.
World Giraffe Day aims to raise awareness about the return of animals to Mozambique, a country where giraffes once thrived, says Fennessy. “There are currently only 250 giraffes in the whole country, and we are committed to bringing 350 in the next five years to four or five different locations to increase populations,” she says. “We estimate that this series of translocations will more than double the population.”
Transfers like this can cost more than $50,000, says Fennessy. She hopes partnerships with safari operators can elicit significant donations from people willing to pay in exchange for more intimate insight into conservation efforts through partnerships with safari providers. Safari operators have so far been eager to get involved.
The loss of any species threatens to collapse fragile ecosystems, says Dereck Joubert, conservationist and chief executive of Great Plains Conservation. Giraffes, for example, prune umbrella-shaped trees that provide shade and protection for antelopes, zebras and other species. While these animals cool off in the shade, they stimulate the grass under these trees, which attracts small grazers. “Just grazing a tree to shape it changes everything,” he says.
Great Plains Conservations has focused its anti-poaching efforts in northern Tanzania, an area notorious for giraffe poaching. The organization recently announced a three-year plan to relocate more than 3,000 animals, including giraffes, to the Sabi Game Reserve in Zimbabwe.
Natural Selection, an operation with camps in South Africa, Namibia and Botswana, has partnered with the Giraffe Conservation Foundation to build the Hoanib Valley camp in northwest Namibia. Guests can help collect data, such as grazing area, on the region’s desert-adapted giraffe, and 1.5% of camp revenue is invested in the Giraffe Conservation Foundation.
The Giraffe Conservation Foundation’s collaboration with Namibian operator Ultimate Safaris has been its greatest achievement to date. In June 2021, partners moved 14 Angolan giraffes, pale cream in color with brown spots and speckled lower legs, from a small private farm to a large swath of communal land in northwest Namibia to help stimulate an existing giraffe population. “To see the return of Angolan giraffes in numbers to this area is incredible,” says William Steenkamp, naturalist guide at Ultimate Safaris’ new lodge, Onduli Ridge, named after the area’s resident animals (onduli means giraffe in the Oshiwambo language spoken in northern Namibia). “Where sightings of giraffes were rare in recent years, they are now almost daily,” he says. “They have added so much value to our customers’ experience as well as a point of pride in local communities.”