two giraffes on the savanna

Towers of Africa

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SNARES IN THE TREES

Once you see one, you’ll never forget it. Suspended five feet above the ground, the wire noose hangs, big as a kitchen table. Barely moving in the whispering breeze, the oval trap waits for its next unsuspecting victim. Nearby, a half-dozen cream and tan-colored creatures browse on acacia leaves 10 feet high in the trees. There is seemingly no social structure or hierarchy among them, just calm camaraderie that comes with being the tallest terrestrial mammals on the planet. Part gangly, part graceful, the giraffes both blend in and stand out on the savanna. In the distance, a cowbell jangles to the scraping song of green-headed sunbirds. Focused on the thicket of leaves, a giraffe steps into the snare and before she can retreat, the wire quickly tightens around her six-foot-long neck. Eyes wide, she bends her neck and kicks at the dust, trying in vain to untangle herself.

a giraffe reaching into a tree

UNDER SIEGE

Over the past 15 years, giraffe numbers have fallen by nearly half; from 140,000 to about 85,000. Despite it being one of the most recognizable creatures on Earth, few people are aware of the giraffes’ predicament, dubbed a “silent extinction” by experts. As is the case with many other species around the world, giraffe threats are driven by human activities: habitat loss and fragmentation as well hunting and poaching. While some populations of giraffe are stable, many are in rapid decline. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, giraffe have plunged from about 350 animals two decades ago, to about 38 animals today, according to a recent survey in Garamba National Park. In rural communities in Africa, bushmeat (wild game) is an important source of protein and surplus meat is sold for added income. Though skittish, giraffes are large targets that can be taken with a single bullet, poison arrow, or wire noose. The animal can provide about 1,000 pounds of meat.

In a cruel twist of fate, some people now believe that consuming giraffe brains and bone marrow will cure HIV/AIDS. This myth has placed a higher value on the giraffe, and accelerated the illegal hunting of this slow-to-reproduce animal. Setting foot or neck snares in giraffe habitat is an inexpensive way to kill them and peddle their parts.

“The threat today is civilization, which has been encroaching on their territory for decades,” said Lynn Sherr, a former reporter for ABC News who now works with the Giraffe Conservation Foundation, based in Namibia. “Slaughter of their bodies for items better purchased in the pharmacy or elsewhere has also increased. It is more than wasteful. It is the thoughtless destruction of a precious and unique creature that harms no living being.”  

a man examines a decayed giraffe carcas

Teetering Tower

There are nine recognized subspecies of giraffe. All of them live in geographically distinct areas across Africa. While most populations are in decline, only two subspecies of giraffe are listed as endangered: the Rothschild’s and West African. But following a recent review, another five subspecies will likely be reclassified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as endangered or critically endangered.

Gliding across the landscape smooth as water, the groups—called towers—are virtually silent in their quest for leaves. With hooves the size of dinner plates attached to six-foot-long legs, even an effortless stroll can carry them 10 miles per hour. It takes a 20-pound heart in an adult giraffe to pump blood up its characteristic long neck. Fuzzy little horns called ossicones poke from the top of the giraffe’s giant head. Deep, dark eyes dramatically fringed with thick lashes peer down at the world…and at that stand of tasty prickly trees. The giraffe is perfectly equipped with an 18-inch long prehensile tongue that can reach between needlelike thorns for juicy leaves, a well-padded mouth, and saliva thicker than motor oil that helps send said vegetation southward. Its large, powerful jaw moves sideways and up and down, making the animal completely enchanting while it’s chewing. The two-story-tall vegetarian has been thriving across Africa for millennia.

Until now. 

a giraffe on the savanna

Twiga Research

It’s hard to imagine that an animal nearly 20 feet tall could stay “under the radar” for so long, even as its numbers declined dramatically. Conservationists hadn’t given too much attention to giraffes, called twiga in Swahili, until around 2010 when it became clear something was amiss with this once ubiquitous species. “We’re learning a lot more about their ecology, but what we know is still way behind what we know about other species,” said David O’Connor, research coordinator with San Diego Zoo Global. Committed to conserving land, livelihoods, ecosystems, and wildlife, David has been collaborating with a cohort of organizations (Giraffe Conservation Foundation, The Nature Conservancy, Loisaba Conservancy, Namunyak Wildlife Conservation Trust, the Northern Rangelands Trust, and Sarara Camp/Sessia Ltd.) and local pastorialist herder communities to foster multidimensional, multi-pronged, community-based conservation of giraffes in Kenya.

To better understand human-giraffe coexistence and conflict, the team will uncover the attitudes, perceptions, beliefs, values, knowledge, and behaviors of the people that live among giraffes. Later, a team of pastoralists will be hired and trained as citizen scientists to manage a network of camera traps used in giraffe identification. These people will eventually become Twiga Walinzi, or giraffe guards, supporting giraffe conservation in the region. “People in local communities are the key to conservation over the long term,” said David. “Through finding sustainable conservation strategies that work for both giraffes and people, San Diego Zoo Global and our collaborators will try to help prevent the extinction of these iconic giants of the savanna.”  

David O'Connor working with local people

Ripple Effect

Giraffes are emblems of Africa, and though they are inaudible, they are vital influences on their ecosystems. As voracious leaf eaters (consuming up to 75 pounds of food a day!), they open up habitat for other wildlife and spur new growth of tender acacia leaves. And eating all that roughage while on the move makes them excellent seed dispersers, essentially regenerating their habitat. Their mighty hooves loosen the soil and help maintain a healthy environment. Giraffes “play well with others” and are often associated with plains zebra, eland, and other shorter animals, which rely on giraffe to spot danger in the distance and flee accordingly.

A recent study led by William Ripple, distinguished professor at Oregon State University, found an alarming decline in the world’s largest herbivores (those weighing over 220 pounds), including giraffes. They focused on 74 large herbivore species in Africa and Asia and concluded, “Without radical intervention, large herbivores (and many smaller ones) will continue to disappear from numerous regions with enormous ecological, social, and economic costs.” So dire were their findings that they coined the unfortunate specter of an “empty landscape” in some of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet, including the African plains. While they expected that habitat change would be the main threat to large herbivores, they found that hunting for meat and body parts was a more significant threat. They also found that large herbivores were just as threatened as large carnivores. While admitting the decline of some large herbivores is “difficult to remedy in a world with increasing human populations and consumption,” they also declared that it is inconceivable that we allow the demand for wildlife products to cause the extinction of species. While drawing attention to the plight of large herbivores like giraffes, the study also stated that, “It is essential that local people be involved in and benefit from the management of protected areas.” And that is what guides San Diego Zoo Global’s fight against extinction, including our collaborative, multi-prong giraffe project.  

close up of young giraffe

Camels and Competition

David O’Connor’s research has focused on giraffes in East Africa, specifically human-livestock-giraffe interactions. By studying how reticulated giraffes forage—what plants they eat and how high they browse—David will also observe how the giraffes co-exist with a newly introduced livestock species: dromedary camels. Hefty and hardy, these camels can go extended lengths of time without water, so pastorialists are raising more of them. David noticed fewer and fewer reticulated giraffes in areas where the camels grazed. Since this subspecies of giraffe has declined by about 80-percent in the past 20 years (from about 38,000 to just 8,600 today), it is important to understand the dynamics between the introduced camels and the native giraffe, as well as tackle other aspects of threats to giraffes. “We need to offer poachers alternative, robust, and growing livelihoods and sources of income,” explained David. “We need to offer quality education to local communities. We need to offer sustainable sources of protein, and we need to collaboratively develop land and wildlife management plans.” In short, we need to make a living giraffe worth more to local communities that a dead one. 

David O'Connor working with tracking equipment

Challenges and Successes

San Diego Zoo Global is committed to saving species from extinction. Through science-based, multidisciplinary conservation efforts, we are collaborating with the Giraffe Conservation Foundation, The Nature Conservancy, and the Northern Rangelands Trust communities (and others) to save the graceful towers of the savanna. While it can be difficult to enforce anti-poaching laws (where they are present), it is also a challenge to change deep-rooted beliefs about wildlife. But once local people can live peaceably and provide for their families, change can happen to benefit wildlife. Successes are sprouting up, like the impromptu sanctuary at Sarara Camp in Kenya. “One of our initiatives is to help support three orphan giraffe calves being raised here,” explained David O’Connor. “These three youngsters had been separated from their mothers after falling into erosion ditches. They were saved by the community and are being hand-reared until they are ready to be released.” 

David O'Connor with a young giraffe

WHY NOW?

With such a drastic decline of giraffe numbers over the past 20 years, there is little time to waste. Current estimates are that this majestic species has quietly dropped by 40-percent across Africa, from 140,000 in the late 1990s to around 85,000 today. Of the nine subspecies of giraffe, only two were listed as endangered: the Rothschild’s and the West African. However, in light of recent assessments, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) is currently updating the listings for giraffes. Seven of the nine subspecies will likely be classified as endangered or critically endangered.

This is bittersweet news: tragic that this icon of Africa is in such peril, good that people are acknowledging the giraffe’s plight and mobilizing to help save it. 

three giraffes among trees

HOW YOU CAN HELP

Do not buy souvenirs or anything else made with giraffe parts. Learn all you can about the giraffe’s “silent extinction” and share information with your friends—you have more influence than you think! You can also support San Diego Zoo Global’s collaborative, community-based conservation work. Purchase our Snare Wire Animal sculptures and other gifts made by people who live with wildlife. Your buying power can enable people to protect their local wildlife instead of setting deadly snares.

You are a vital part of the solution! 

two giraffes looking out from thick brush