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.
By Dana M Bergstrom, Euan Ritchie, Lesley Hughes and Michael Depledge
In 1992, 1,700 scientists warned that human beings and the natural world were "on a collision course." Seventeen years later, scientists described planetary boundaries within which humans and other life could have a "safe space to operate." These are environmental thresholds, such as the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and changes in land use.
The Good and Bad News<p><span>Ecosystems consist of living and non-living components, and their interactions. They work like a super-complex engine: when some components are removed or stop working, knock-on consequences can lead to system failure.</span></p><p>Our study is based on measured data and observations, not modeling or predictions for the future. Encouragingly, not all ecosystems we examined have collapsed across their entire range. We still have, for instance, some intact reefs on the Great Barrier Reef, especially in deeper waters. And northern Australia has some of the most intact and least-modified stretches of savanna woodlands on Earth.</p><p><span>Still, collapses are happening, including in regions critical for growing food. This includes the </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/importance-murray-darling-basin/where-basin" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Murray-Darling Basin</a><span>, which covers around 14% of Australia's landmass. Its rivers and other freshwater systems support more than </span><a href="https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/[email protected]/latestproducts/94F2007584736094CA2574A50014B1B6?opendocument" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">30% of Australia's food</a><span> production.</span></p><p><span></span><span>The effects of floods, fires, heatwaves and storms do not stop at farm gates; they're felt equally in agricultural areas and natural ecosystems. We shouldn't forget how towns ran out of </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/issues-murray-darling-basin/drought#effects" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">drinking water</a><span> during the recent drought.</span></p><p><span></span><span>Drinking water is also at risk when ecosystems collapse in our water catchments. In Victoria, for example, the degradation of giant </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/logging-must-stop-in-melbournes-biggest-water-supply-catchment-106922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mountain Ash forests</a><span> greatly reduces the amount of water flowing through the Thompson catchment, threatening nearly five million people's drinking water in Melbourne.</span></p><p>This is a dire <em data-redactor-tag="em">wake-up</em> call — not just a <em data-redactor-tag="em">warning</em>. Put bluntly, current changes across the continent, and their potential outcomes, pose an existential threat to our survival, and other life we share environments with.</p><p><span>In investigating patterns of collapse, we found most ecosystems experience multiple, concurrent pressures from both global climate change and regional human impacts (such as land clearing). Pressures are often </span><a href="https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1365-2664.13427" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">additive and extreme</a><span>.</span></p><p>Take the last 11 years in Western Australia as an example.</p><p>In the summer of 2010 and 2011, a <a href="https://theconversation.com/marine-heatwaves-are-getting-hotter-lasting-longer-and-doing-more-damage-95637" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">heatwave</a> spanning more than 300,000 square kilometers ravaged both marine and land ecosystems. The extreme heat devastated forests and woodlands, kelp forests, seagrass meadows and coral reefs. This catastrophe was followed by two cyclones.</p><p>A record-breaking, marine heatwave in late 2019 dealt a further blow. And another marine heatwave is predicted for <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/dec/24/wa-coastline-facing-marine-heatwave-in-early-2021-csiro-predicts" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">this April</a>.</p>
What to Do About It?<p><span>Our brains trust comprises 38 experts from 21 universities, CSIRO and the federal Department of Agriculture Water and Environment. Beyond quantifying and reporting more doom and gloom, we asked the question: what can be done?</span></p><p>We devised a simple but tractable scheme called the 3As:</p><ul><li>Awareness of what is important</li><li>Anticipation of what is coming down the line</li><li>Action to stop the pressures or deal with impacts.</li></ul><p>In our paper, we identify positive actions to help protect or restore ecosystems. Many are already happening. In some cases, ecosystems might be better left to recover by themselves, such as coral after a cyclone.</p><p>In other cases, active human intervention will be required – for example, placing artificial nesting boxes for Carnaby's black cockatoos in areas where old trees have been <a href="https://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/publications/factsheet-carnabys-black-cockatoo-calyptorhynchus-latirostris" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">removed</a>.</p><p><span>"Future-ready" actions are also vital. This includes reinstating </span><a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/a-burning-question-fire/12395700" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultural burning practices</a><span>, which have </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/australia-you-have-unfinished-business-its-time-to-let-our-fire-people-care-for-this-land-135196" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">multiple values and benefits for Aboriginal communities</a><span> and can help minimize the risk and strength of bushfires.</span></p><p>It might also include replanting banks along the Murray River with species better suited to <a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/my-garden-path---matt-hansen/12322978" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">warmer conditions</a>.</p><p>Some actions may be small and localized, but have substantial positive benefits.</p><p>For example, billions of migrating Bogong moths, the main summer food for critically endangered mountain pygmy possums, have not arrived in their typical numbers in Australian alpine regions in recent years. This was further exacerbated by the <a href="https://theconversation.com/six-million-hectares-of-threatened-species-habitat-up-in-smoke-129438" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2019-20</a> fires. Brilliantly, <a href="https://www.zoo.org.au/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Zoos Victoria</a> anticipated this pressure and developed supplementary food — <a href="https://theconversation.com/looks-like-an-anzac-biscuit-tastes-like-a-protein-bar-bogong-bikkies-help-mountain-pygmy-possums-after-fire-131045" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Bogong bikkies</a>.</p><p><span>Other more challenging, global or large-scale actions must address the </span><a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iICpI9H0GkU&t=34s" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">root cause of environmental threats</a><span>, such as </span><a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-018-0504-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">human population growth and per-capita consumption</a><span> of environmental resources.</span><br></p><p>We must rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero, remove or suppress invasive species such as <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/mam.12080" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">feral cats</a> and <a href="https://theconversation.com/the-buffel-kerfuffle-how-one-species-quietly-destroys-native-wildlife-and-cultural-sites-in-arid-australia-149456" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">buffel grass</a>, and stop widespread <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-reduce-fire-risk-and-meet-climate-targets-over-300-scientists-call-for-stronger-land-clearing-laws-113172" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">land clearing</a> and other forms of habitat destruction.</p>
Our Lives Depend On It<p>The multiple ecosystem collapses we have documented in Australia are a harbinger for <a href="https://www.iucn.org/news/protected-areas/202102/natures-future-our-future-world-speaks" target="_blank">environments globally</a>.</p><p>The simplicity of the 3As is to show people <em>can</em> do something positive, either at the local level of a landcare group, or at the level of government departments and conservation agencies.</p><p>Our lives and those of our <a href="https://theconversation.com/children-are-our-future-and-the-planets-heres-how-you-can-teach-them-to-take-care-of-it-113759" target="_blank">children</a>, as well as our <a href="https://theconversation.com/taking-care-of-business-the-private-sector-is-waking-up-to-natures-value-153786" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">economies</a>, societies and <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-address-the-ecological-crisis-aboriginal-peoples-must-be-restored-as-custodians-of-country-108594" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultures</a>, depend on it.</p><p>We simply cannot afford any further delay.</p><p><em><a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/dana-m-bergstrom-1008495" target="_blank" style="">Dana M Bergstrom</a> is a principal research scientist at the University of Wollongong. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/euan-ritchie-735" target="_blank" style="">Euan Ritchie</a> is a professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences at Deakin University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/lesley-hughes-5823" target="_blank">Lesley Hughes</a> is a professor at the Department of Biological Sciences at Macquarie University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/michael-depledge-114659" target="_blank">Michael Depledge</a> is a professor and chair, Environment and Human Health, at the University of Exeter. </em></p><p><em>Disclosure statements: Dana Bergstrom works for the Australian Antarctic Division and is a Visiting Fellow at the University of Wollongong. Her research including fieldwork on Macquarie Island and in Antarctica was supported by the Australian Antarctic Division.</em></p><p><em>Euan Ritchie receives funding from the Australian Research Council, The Australia and Pacific Science Foundation, Australian Geographic, Parks Victoria, Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, and the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC. Euan Ritchie is a Director (Media Working Group) of the Ecological Society of Australia, and a member of the Australian Mammal Society.</em></p><p><em>Lesley Hughes receives funding from the Australian Research Council. She is a Councillor with the Climate Council of Australia, a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and a Director of WWF-Australia.</em></p><p><em>Michael Depledge 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.</em></p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/existential-threat-to-our-survival-see-the-19-australian-ecosystems-already-collapsing-154077" target="_blank" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
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