but they are also remarkable examples of Nature’s ability to adapt to circumstances that remind us that there is a solution to every problem. In the case of the giraffe, their long necks are an evolutionary adaptation that bestowed a competitive advantage to better enable them to reach the top branches of their favorite acacia trees¹. However, the problem with evolution is that it doesn’t always act fast enough to allow species to keep up with new threats and this is why many populations of giraffe are suffering from severe declines.
In 1999, it was estimated that there were around 140,000 giraffes spread across Africa but more recent counts put the number closer to 80,000¹,². The animal is still listed on the IUCN’s Red List as being of least concern, a classification way down at the bottom, behind only ‘data deficient’ and ‘not evaluated’, but this doesn’t hide the fact that the species is still in real danger. Part of the problem with establishing the true status of giraffes is that there are several distinct populations and sub-species, with some uncertainty over the exact number, and with some populations in decline, while others are increasing.
Of those that are on the up, the West African giraffe, found only in Niger, is doing particularly well, having risen from a mere 50 individuals in the mid 1990s to around 400 today (although this is still of concern)³. This can be attributed to a government which implemented solid policies and which were backed up by good governance. However, other populations are not so lucky, with all others on the decline.
As ever, it’s not just one thing which contributes to such a decline but a combination of complex factors which must be considered together to understand the full picture. Perhaps the biggest elements are habitat loss and fragmentation, with human populations encroaching onto giraffe territory and with land use changes, such as agricultural developments and settlement expansion, resulting in the removal of the trees which form their diet⁴,⁵.
Poaching also plays a major role in the decline, particularly in Tanzania, Kenya and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and which actually forms a more disturbing part of a wider issue⁶. Many of the animals are killed in order to feed those who hunt elephants for their ivory, while demand for bush meat is also high (and much of which is actually exported to Europe and elsewhere). Giraffes are susceptible to poaching as they are largely docile animals that are easy to kill and which provide a lot of meat. However, it’s not just the meat that is in high demand.
Around ten years ago, a belief in the healing power of giraffe bone marrow and brains sprang up, with practitioners touting their ability to protect and cure people of HIV/AIDS. Severed giraffe heads and bones can fetch up to $140 each, making this a highly tempting option for potential poachers⁷.
Part of the reason why giraffes have suffered from such a drastic decline is simply because no one was really paying attention⁶. They were such an iconic part of the African landscape that it was assumed they were in no danger and little focus was paid to research and protection. Their extinction would be tragic enough by itself, but if the reason was that no one was looking hard enough, it would not only be tragic but shameful.