The Fall of Gentle Giants

The zoo staple. The graceful giant. A child’s favourite. A famous wild animal figure. A now vulnerable species.

Yesterday marked the addition of the giraffe to the vulnerable species list. The news received was unanticipated, uneconomical and now the issue is unavoidable. It seems uneducated to say that many did not expect this to happen, even after the giraffe’s conservation status at a satisfying ‘least concern,’ until recently, but in all reality, giraffe population numbers have been in subtle decline for 30 years for reasons identical to our famous extinct predecessors.

In 2014, there were approximately 80,000 giraffes left in Africa, according to the Giraffe Conservation Foundation. In 1999, there were an estimated 140,000 giraffes. To understand how giraffes got to vulnerable status requires us first to debunk the stereotype that giraffes are abundant. This is complicated as they are a common animal in zoos, widely recognised as a famous figure of African wildlife and safaris feature them frequently. In recent years, they have suffered silently and if this issue has taught us anything it’s that perceptions don’t count. Giraffes live solely on the continent of Africa where currently there are just 9 small pockets where each Giraffe sub-species live according to the IUCN. This is worrying not only as the locations make conservation increasingly difficult; 9 areas from now on need dramatic protection rather than just one (the species pockets are situated in South Africa, a particularly big population in East Africa and small parts in Central Africa) but it is typical of the start of a cycle ending in extinction. Giraffes are usually found in groups. A “group” has been defined as “a collection of individuals that are less than a kilometre apart and moving in the same general direction. This is no longer the case.

Threats to giraffes is what has primarily lead to the remote populations mentioned above and ultimately the numbers dwindling to 40% of what they were 30 years back. Deforestation and poaching with constant global warming threats are the 3 predominant causes. The meat industry from the Western world has contributed heavily to giraffe decline; clearing much of the giraffe’s unique habitat for farmland and cattle grazing. To the native people, deforesting may be the only way of earning a living – there is no other choice. No surprise that this has happened as in October, a major analysis found the number of wild creatures was on track to fall by two-thirds by 2020, compared to 1970. Poaching has risen despite vast international efforts and is usually done to large groups. Tackling these giant, infamous contributors will require a lot of effort, especially with recent political changes and a growing population of humans. Civil unrest has also caused much of the habitat destruction, which will be difficult to resolve quickly.

The next move for giraffes in unknown but this has highlighted the fact that any animal is at risk in this world, even one that has been part of the Earth for a millennial, and so beloved it is known to many.

 

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Rosie Jones

Environmental Studies student in Winchester, UK.

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