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Conservationists Sound Alarm on Plummeting Giraffe Numbers


By Rina Herzl

Picture an animal enrobed in a fiery, jigsaw-patterned coat. A creature of such majestic height that it towers amongst the trees. As your eyes make their way up its long neck that appears to defy gravity, you find crowned atop its head two Seussian, horn-like protrusions framing dark, curious eyes fanned by lashes. In its truest sense, the giraffe fits the description of a creature plucked from the pages of a fantastical story. Even its species name, Giraffa camelopardalis, comes from the ancient Greek belief that the giraffe is a peculiar camel wearing the coat of a leopard. Meanwhile, the Japanese word for giraffe and unicorn are one and the same.

Today, we continue to walk the Earth with these awe-inspiring creatures, which range across much of Africa. But giraffes are facing what many are calling a "silent extinction." Public awareness and global action is critically due. "These gentle giants have been overlooked," appeals Sir David Attenborough in BBC's Story of Life documentary series aired in late 2016, urging that "time is running out."

As word begins to get out about the difficulty giraffes are facing, a small, committed cohort are fighting for the species. They are working diligently in the field to learn more about the animals and their populations, cooperating with governments to preserve land giraffes depend on, and collaborating with communities to conserve their wildlife. Meanwhile, others are championing for giraffes on the legal frontlines, advocating for further protections. In particular, wildlife advocates have called for great protections at the international level, as well as domestic restrictions on trade in giraffe parts in the U.S.

The sharp decline of giraffe numbers over the past three decades led to an official change in their conservation status in December 2016, when the giraffe was "uplisted" from Least Concern status to Vulnerable—more specifically, "Vulnerable to Extinction" in the wild—on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's (IUCN) Red List. (Listings under the IUCN don't come with specific protections, but provide valuable information about species' status as well as attention to the threats they face). In making the decision, the IUCN cited an ongoing population decline of 36 to 40 percent between 1985 and 2015. This represents a change from approximately 106,191 to 114,416 mature individuals in 1985 down to 68,293 in 2015. (It's important to note that this population count is of mature individual giraffes, as giraffe reproduction is inherently slow to replace lost population. A long gestation period of 15 months typically yields only one calf, and those calves are vulnerable to predation by wild dogs, hyenas, leopards and lions. Approximately 50 to 75 percent of all young giraffes perish due to predation, one of the highest mortality rates among animals).

Giraffes' updated IUCN conservation listing is "a wake-up call," said Tanya Sanerib, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. "Giraffe scientists and conservation NGOs are all working to raise awareness of the giraffe crisis and prevent it."

One of these efforts is currently playing out in the U.S. where the giraffe is not currently protected by law. In April 2017, the Center for Biological Diversity, Humane Society International, The Humane Society of the United States, International Fund for Animal Welfare and Natural Resources Defense Council filed a legal petition to protect giraffes under the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA). An endangered listing under the ESA would come with a ban on most imports and sales of giraffe trophies, bone carvings and other giraffe "products." A listing would also send an urgent message to the world community to protect this majestic species. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has not yet responded to the petition, though the 90-day period within which the agency is supposed to respond has passed.

"The Endangered Species Act is one of the most effective tools for species conservation," said Sanerib. "Given the significant imports to the U.S. of giraffe bones, bone carvings, skins, and trophies, the U.S. is undeniably a part of the decline of giraffes and an ESA-listing would raise awareness about this fact and increase scrutiny of our imports."

Aggregate giraffe populations are on a downward trend in Africa, but some of the nine giraffe subspecies are suffering worse than others. The Masai giraffe population, the tallest of the subspecies with a darker star-shaped pattern coat, halved between 1985 and 2015. The number of reticulated giraffes, which live in the horn of Africa and have a bright neatly-patterned coat, declined nearly 80 percent in the same period. Roughly 400 West African giraffe remain in Niger and Nubian giraffe number at only 650. Today, giraffes have become extirpated or locally extinct in at least seven African countries and have vanished from most of West Africa. It's not all bad news, though: Certain populations, including ones in Tanzania and and South Africa, are growing due to breeding for legal game hunting and tourism.

Biologists have found that, unlike other species, giraffe will not associate or interbreed between subspecies. For example, in Kenya, three species coexist, the Masai, Reticulated and Nubian giraffe, and though they may encounter one another they each maintain a unique genetic makeup and do not interbreed. Dr. Julian Fennessy comments that giraffe are "so much more unique than many other species out there that do interbreed and have viable offspring."

This brings into focus that: While giraffe populations are plummeting, scientists are still making discoveries about giraffes. For example, giraffes are currently recognized as one species with nine subspecies. Each subspecies visually distinguishable by their different coat patterns. This understanding, however, may be changing: Recent scientific analyses suggest that giraffes may be four or even up to nine distinct species. Kirstie Rupport, who works on giraffe conservation in Kenya for San Diego Zoo Global, believes giraffes are finally gaining "heightened conservation attention" given these recent discoveries. She reminds us that this research "shines a light on how little we know about a species that is so iconic and how little we know relative to other big species."

These genetic findings could be cause to separate the species taxonomically. Once separated, those species facing greater threats would merit protections under international law, including endangered or critically endangered listings on the IUCN Red List. In 2007, Dr. David Brown, a biologist who did an extensive genetic study on giraffe, said that "lumping all giraffes into one species obscures the reality that some kinds of giraffe are on the brink. Some of these populations number only a few hundred individuals and need immediate protection." Ten years later, international protection is still lacking.

Changing their classification, however, won't be easy. Should it happen, it will "be a very slow process and more work on classical taxonomy will be required before initiating this change," said Stephanie Fennessy, co-director of the Giraffe Conservation Foundation.

So, what is ultimately causing the decline of giraffe populations? As with species the world over: human-created pressures. Giraffe declines across the continent are tied to to habitat loss, civil unrest, illegal hunting and poaching, and ecological changes (like those related to mining activity and climate change). In each country and region, the specific threats vary.

With respect to habitat, Rupport points to "the need for conservation partnerships, both in the private and public sectors to protect those large tracts of land, not just for giraffes, but also for the many African megafauna that really need it in order to survive." Coexistence between humans and wildlife is a palpable issue in biodiverse regions across the globe. Giraffes are a species that do little to disrupt human livelihood in these regions and even still the "establishment of community conservancies [in Kenya] really has given a lot of hope for coexistence between pastoralist people in this region and wildlife," Rupport said.

In Uganda, there is a growing interest in oil exploration, right in the heart of giraffe range. As a preventative measure, Giraffe Conservation Foundation and the Uganda Wildlife Authority "translocated" or moved 18 Rothschild's and Nubian giraffes across the Nile in 2016, to protect giraffes from the potential impacts of prospective oil mining.

In Kenya, an ongoing drought is posing a problem. No longer an issue reserved for polar bears living at the edge of the planet, climate change is now impacting giraffes as well by exacerbating drought conditions. Across Africa and other parts of the world, climate change impacts vegetation through desertification—a process by which fertile land becomes desert—negatively impacting people and wildlife alike. Rupport described that "[This] past year Kenya really faced an extreme drought and is still in the midst of it." She added, "When [giraffes] face extreme drought in these places the regeneration of grass for livestock and for wildlife species is really compromised." This not only impacts availability of food for wildlife, but also that for humans, and can lead communities to resort to hunting wildlife for bushmeat, as found by Rupport and Derek Lee of the Wild Nature Institute. As well, with smaller ungulates perishing due to increased drought, lion predation increases on giraffe young. Rupport states "climate change—at least, extreme drought and connecting that to climate change—is one of the most pressing challenges in this region that we're facing on a daily basis."

"Across central Africa and parts of eastern Africa poaching has been a really big threat in recent years," said Dr. Julian Fennessy. In Kenya and Tanzania giraffes are experiencing dramatic increases in illegal killing for their meat as well as for trophies. These are regions in which giraffe numbers are already under considerable strain, and illegal hunting is emerging as a real threat to the species. TRAFFIC, a leading NGO working globally on the trade of wild animals and plants, is prioritizing giraffes in their investigative work and is planning "to carry out work on giraffe trade in parts of East Africa, in response to the rising number of reports we've encountered of giraffe parts in trade." And though illegal hunting is becoming a greater issue, many advocates, including Sanerib, argue that legal hunting is also contributing to the decline of giraffes.

Legal trophy hunting for all species continues to give rise to heated debate in the conservation community regarding whether it is a viable conservation tool. "If well-managed, trophy hunting is a form of sustainable use that can provide direct income and benefits from wildlife resources to local communities," said Dr. Richard Thomas of TRAFFIC. The key term to question here is whether it is "well-managed." However, evidence is mounting against hunting as a conservation tool. Research suggests that little money made from big game hunting actually goes to local communities and the amount dedicated to conservation efforts itself is negligible. That same study found that trophy hunting makes up as little as 1.8 percent of tourism revenues across the continent. Growing evidence also suggests that legal trophy hunting can compromise the genetic health of a species and that it engenders illegal hunting and wildlife crime. (Read more about the debate on legal hunting as a conservation tool here).

What conservationists agree on is that urgent action is needed for the protection giraffes. Currently, giraffes are not internationally protected by trade laws or by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). CITES regulates and restricts the international trade of threatened species; as giraffes are listed as Vulnerable, they just miss the mark to gain protection, despite the fact that some subspecies on the brink. "Giraffes are not protected under CITES and we know that the U.S. is a significant importer of giraffe trophies," said Sanerib. Between 2006 and 2015, an average of 374 giraffe trophies were imported into the US per year. That is more than a giraffe a day.

The Center for Biological Diversity and their petition co-sponsors believe protection under the ESA is critical. "The U.S. is undeniably a part of the decline of giraffes and an ESA-listing would raise awareness about this fact and increase scrutiny of our imports," said Sanerib.

And this fall, the Parties to the Convention on Migratory Species will decide whether to protect giraffes, which periodically and cyclically cross international borders or did so historically, under that convention. Angola proposes listing giraffes on CMS Appendix II, which would require the establishment of agreements to protect and restore species habitat.

Though there is much to be done, it seems considerable strides are being made to learn more about giraffes and to protect them, from enacting greater legal protection and employing concerted anti-poaching measures to improving land-use planning and developing stewardship programs with local communities.

"I think giraffes capture our imaginations to begin with, but the more we learn about these animals the more fascinating they become," said Sanerib. "Raising awareness about the decline of giraffes is so important, we have to halt their decline before it is too late."

This is just the beginning of a giraffe recovery. With growing concern over their decline will hopefully propel the public to call on NGOs, governments, scientists, communities and advocates to come together to protect and elevate this remarkable species so that it may thrive on our planet once again.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Earth Island Journal.

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Guillain-Barre syndrome occurs when the body's own immune system attacks and injures the nerves outside of the spinal cord or brain – the peripheral nervous system. Niq Steele / Getty Images

By Sherry H-Y. Chou, Aarti Sarwal and Neha S. Dangayach

The patient in the case report (let's call him Tom) was 54 and in good health. For two days in May, he felt unwell and was too weak to get out of bed. When his family finally brought him to the hospital, doctors found that he had a fever and signs of a severe infection, or sepsis. He tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 infection. In addition to symptoms of COVID-19, he was also too weak to move his legs.

When a neurologist examined him, Tom was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre Syndrome, an autoimmune disease that causes abnormal sensation and weakness due to delays in sending signals through the nerves. Usually reversible, in severe cases it can cause prolonged paralysis involving breathing muscles, require ventilator support and sometimes leave permanent neurological deficits. Early recognition by expert neurologists is key to proper treatment.

We are neurologists specializing in intensive care and leading studies related to neurological complications from COVID-19. Given the occurrence of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in prior pandemics with other corona viruses like SARS and MERS, we are investigating a possible link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19 and tracking published reports to see if there is any link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19.

Some patients may not seek timely medical care for neurological symptoms like prolonged headache, vision loss and new muscle weakness due to fear of getting exposed to virus in the emergency setting. People need to know that medical facilities have taken full precautions to protect patients. Seeking timely medical evaluation for neurological symptoms can help treat many of these diseases.

What Is Guillain-Barre Syndrome?

Guillain-Barre syndrome occurs when the body's own immune system attacks and injures the nerves outside of the spinal cord or brain – the peripheral nervous system. Most commonly, the injury involves the protective sheath, or myelin, that wraps nerves and is essential to nerve function.

Without the myelin sheath, signals that go through a nerve are slowed or lost, which causes the nerve to malfunction.

To diagnose Guillain-Barre Syndrome, neurologists perform a detailed neurological exam. Due to the nerve injury, patients often may have loss of reflexes on examination. Doctors often need to perform a lumbar puncture, otherwise known as spinal tap, to sample spinal fluid and look for signs of inflammation and abnormal antibodies.

Studies have shown that giving patients an infusion of antibodies derived from donated blood or plasma exchange – a process that cleans patients' blood of harmful antibodies - can speed up recovery. A very small subset of patients may need these therapies long-term.

The majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients improve within a few weeks and eventually can make a full recovery. However, some patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome have lingering symptoms including weakness and abnormal sensations in arms and/or legs; rarely patients may be bedridden or disabled long-term.

Guillain-Barre Syndrome and Pandemics

As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the globe, many neurologic specialists have been on the lookout for potentially serious nervous system complications such as Guillain-Barre Syndrome.

Though Guillain-Barre Syndrome is rare, it is well known to emerge following bacterial infections, such as Campylobacter jejuni, a common cause of food poisoning, and a multitude of viral infections including the flu virus, Zika virus and other coronaviruses.

Studies showed an increase in Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases following the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, suggesting a possible connection. The presumed cause for this link is that the body's own immune response to fight the infection turns on itself and attacks the peripheral nerves. This is called an "autoimmune" condition. When a pandemic affects as many people as our current COVID-19 crisis, even a rare complication can become a significant public health problem. That is especially true for one that causes neurological dysfunction where the recovery takes a long time and may be incomplete.

The first reports of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in COVID-19 pandemic originated from Italy, Spain and China, where the pandemic surged before the U.S. crisis.

Though there is clear clinical suspicion that COVID-19 can lead to Guillain-Barre Syndrome, many important questions remain. What are the chances that someone gets Guillain-Barre Syndrome during or following a COVID-19 infection? Does Guillain-Barre Syndrome happen more often in those who have been infected with COVID-19 compared to other types of infections, such as the flu?

The only way to get answers is through a prospective study where doctors perform systematic surveillance and collect data on a large group of patients. There are ongoing large research consortia hard at work to figure out answers to these questions.

Understanding the Association Between COVID-19 and Guillain-Barre Syndrome

While large research studies are underway, overall it appears that Guillain-Barre Syndrome is a rare but serious phenomenon possibly linked to COVID-19. Given that more than 10.7 million cases have been reported for COVID-19, there have been 10 reported cases of COVID-19 patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far – only two reported cases in the U.S., five in Italy, two cases in Iran and one from Wuhan, China.

It is certainly possible that there are other cases that have not been reported. The Global Consortium Study of Neurological Dysfunctions in COVID-19 is actively underway to find out how often neurological problems like Guillain-Barre Syndrome is seen in hospitalized COVID-19 patients. Also, just because Guillain-Barre Syndrome occurs in a patient diagnosed with COVID-19, that does not imply that it was caused by the virus; this still may be a coincident occurrence. More research is needed to understand how the two events are related.

Due to the pandemic and infection-containment considerations, diagnostic tests, such as a nerve conduction study that used to be routine for patients with suspected Guillain-Barre Syndrome, are more difficult to do. In both U.S. cases, the initial diagnosis and treatment were all based on clinical examination by a neurological experts rather than any tests. Both patients survived but with significant residual weakness at the time these case reports came out, but that is not uncommon for Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients. The road to recovery may sometimes be long, but many patients can make a full recovery with time.

Though the reported cases of Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far all have severe symptoms, this is not uncommon in a pandemic situation where the less sick patients may stay home and not present for medical care for fear of being exposed to the virus. This, plus the limited COVID-19 testing capability across the U.S., may skew our current detection of Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases toward the sicker patients who have to go to a hospital. In general, the majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients do recover, given enough time. We do not yet know whether this is true for COVID-19-related cases at this stage of the pandemic. We and colleagues around the world are working around the clock to find answers to these critical questions.

Sherry H-Y. Chou is an Associate Professor of Critical Care Medicine, Neurology, and Neurosurgery, University of Pittsburgh.

Aarti Sarwal is an Associate Professor, Neurology, Wake Forest University.

Neha S. Dangayach is an Assistant Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Disclosure statement: Sherry H-Y. Chou receives funding from The University of Pittsburgh Clinical Translational Science Institute (CTSI), the National Institute of Health, and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine Dean's Faculty Advancement Award. Sherry H-Y. Chou is a member of Board of Directors for the Neurocritical Care Society. Neha S. Dangayach receives funding from the Bee Foundation, the Friedman Brain Institute, the Neurocritical Care Society, InCHIP-UConn Center for mHealth and Social Media Seed Grant. She is faculty for emcrit.org and for AiSinai. Aarti Sarwal does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Reposted with permission from The Conversation.

Nurses wear PPE prior to caring for a COVID-19 patient in the ICU at Sharp Grossmont Hospital on May 5, 2020 in La Mesa, California. Mario Tama / Getty Images

One of the initial reasons social distancing guidelines were put in place was to allow the healthcare system to adapt to a surge in patients since there was a critical shortage of beds, ventilators and personal protective equipment. In fact, masks that were designed for single-use were reused for an entire week in some hospitals.

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Democratic presidential hopefuls Joe Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders greet each other with a safe elbow bump before the start of the Democratic Party 2020 presidential debate in a CNN Washington Bureau studio in Washington, DC on March 15, 2020. Mandel Ngan / AFP / Getty Images

By Jake Johnson

Unity Task Forces formed by presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders unveiled sweeping party platform recommendations Wednesday that—while falling short of progressive ambitions in a number of areas, from climate to healthcare—were applauded as important steps toward a bold and just policy agenda that matches the severity of the moment.

"We've moved the needle a lot, especially on environmental justice and upping Biden's ambition," said Sunrise Movement co-founder and executive director Varshini Prakash, a member of the Biden-Sanders Climate Task Force. "But there's still more work to do to push Democrats to act at the scale of the climate crisis."

The climate panel—co-chaired by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and former Secretary of State John Kerry—recommended that the Democratic Party commit to "eliminating carbon pollution from power plants by 2035," massively expanding investments in clean energy sources, and "achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions for all new buildings by 2030."

In a series of tweets Wednesday night, Ocasio-Cortez—the lead sponsor of the House Green New Deal resolution—noted that the Climate Task Force "shaved 15 years off Biden's previous target for 100% clean energy."

"Of course, like in any collaborative effort, there are areas of negotiation and compromise," said the New York Democrat. "But I do believe that the Climate Task Force effort meaningfully and substantively improved Biden's positions."


The 110 pages of policy recommendations from the six eight-person Unity Task Forces on education, the economy, criminal justice, immigration, climate change, and healthcare are aimed at shaping negotiations over the 2020 Democratic platform at the party's convention next month.

Sanders said that while the "end result isn't what I or my supporters would've written alone, the task forces have created a good policy blueprint that will move this country in a much-needed progressive direction and substantially improve the lives of working families throughout our country."

"I look forward to working with Vice President Biden to help him win this campaign," the Vermont senator added, "and to move this country forward toward economic, racial, social, and environmental justice."

Biden, for his part, applauded the task forces "for helping build a bold, transformative platform for our party and for our country."

"I am deeply grateful to Bernie Sanders for working with us to unite our party and deliver real, lasting change for generations to come," said the former vice president.

On the life-or-death matter of reforming America's dysfunctional private health insurance system—a subject on which Sanders and Biden clashed repeatedly throughout the Democratic primary process—the Unity Task Force affirmed healthcare as "a right" but did not embrace Medicare for All, the signature policy plank of the Vermont senator's presidential bid.

Instead, the panel recommended building on the Affordable Care Act by establishing a public option, investing in community health centers, and lowering prescription drug costs by allowing the federal government to negotiate prices. The task force also endorsed making all Covid-19 testing, treatments, and potential vaccines free and expanding Medicaid for the duration of the pandemic.

"It has always been a crisis that tens of millions of Americans have no or inadequate health insurance—but in a pandemic, it's potentially catastrophic for public health," the task force wrote.

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, a former Michigan gubernatorial candidate and Sanders-appointed member of the Healthcare Task Force, said that despite major disagreements, the panel "came to recommendations that will yield one of the most progressive Democratic campaign platforms in history—though we have further yet to go."


Observers and advocacy groups also applauded the Unity Task Forces for recommending the creation of a postal banking system, endorsing a ban on for-profit charter schools, ending the use of private prisons, and imposing a 100-day moratorium on deportations "while conducting a full-scale study on current practices to develop recommendations for transforming enforcement policies and practices at ICE and CBP."

Marisa Franco, director of immigrant rights group Mijente, said in a statement that "going into these task force negotiations, we knew we were going to have to push Biden past his comfort zone, both to reconcile with past offenses and to carve a new path forward."

"That is exactly what we did, unapologetically," said Franco, a member of the Immigration Task Force. "For years, Mijente, along with the broader immigrant rights movement, has fought to reshape the narrative around immigration towards racial justice and to focus these very demands. We expect Biden and the Democratic Party to implement them in their entirety."

"There is no going back," Franco added. "Not an inch, not a step. We must only move forward from here."

Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.

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