On December 8, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, which creates and tracks the official global endangered species list, re-classified giraffes from a species of Least Concern to a Vulnerable species, as reported in its Red List of Threatened Species. Vulnerable species face extinction in the relatively-near future if no actions are taken to protect it and its habitat from external threats. Following a Vulnerable status, the next steps are endangered, critically endangered, extinct in the wild, and finally extinct.
Though poaching and illegal trade of other megafauna, from elephants and rhinos to pangolins, has been at the forefront of news the past for years, giraffes have been perceived as relatively safe in the last decade. However, as reported by Damian Carrington at The Guardian, giraffes have dropped significantly in the last 31 years, from 157,000 in 1985 to 97,500 when counted last.
“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,” says Julian Fennessy, co-chair of the IUCN’s Species Survival Commission’s Giraffe and Okapi Specialist Group. “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 are faced with both habitat destruction, as cities and towns increasingly take over, and poaching, which has been especially problematic of late. While food insecure villagers sometimes kill the animals to eat, Jani Actman at National Geographic notes that many are killed for their tails, which are seen as a status symbol and are often used as a dowry in local cultures.
The New York Times reporter Patrick Healy explains that the red list divides the giraffe into nine subspecies, and that five of those subspecies are rapidly declining, while just two are increasing and one has held stable. Happily, West African giraffes, the smallest group, have grown from 50 in the 1990s to 400 today, but that victory required solid and vast activism and efforts from both the government of Niger and conservation groups.
Derek Lee, founder of the Wild Nature Institute, told Healy that both threats must end in order to save giraffes. “These are problems everywhere for giraffes,” he says. “You need to stop both threats.” Lee believes that funding for anti-poaching efforts will be helpful, but that preventing habitat destruction is much trickier, requiring intervention into land development, mining, and local livelihoods.
The most concerning aspect for some is that so few were aware how perilous the situation had become for giraffes. “I am absolutely amazed that no one has a clue,” Julian Fennessy, executive director of Giraffe Conservation Foundation told 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 said in the Associated Press. However, giraffes have disappeared across much of Africa for a century, and is already extinct in Burkina Faso, Eritrea, Guinea, Malawi, Mauritania, Nigeria and Senegal. Their plight is a sad insight into how easily we can overlook the silent destruction of a beautiful and beloved species.
Source: Daley, Jason. “Giraffes Silently Slip Onto the Endangered Species List.” The Smithsonian. 9 December 2016.
Photo Source: Jon Mountjoy
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