The decrease in giraffes across Africa
African elephants are an infamous martyr to human encroachment and poaching. Their population’s devastating decline inspires outrage and calls for increased conservation. But, in the shadows of this outcry, another struggling African icon still waits for witnesses.
In this world, there are fewer giraffes than African elephants.
Across Africa, the giraffe population has decreased by 40% since the 1980s. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classifies them as “vulnerable” and facing a high risk of extinction, with some subspecies already in the “critically endangered” category.
The giraffe’s plight lies largely in habitat loss. As woodlands become ranches, the charcoal industry intensifies, and human development as a whole expands across Africa, the once widely-distributed giraffe finds its populations split into shrinking, disconnected clusters, and, in some countries, they have completely disappeared. This disconnection between populations contributes to inbreeding and disease transmission. Climate change’s increased droughts compounds giraffes’ geographic stressors. They have not only less water but also fewer spaces to search for it.
Additionally, like many species, the giraffe is a wildlife trafficking target with its profitable, unique hide and its bones serving as an elephant ivory replacement. Giraffe trafficking is further fueled by civil strife. Conflicts across northern Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia, and Sudan have pushed struggling civilians into poaching and bushmeat trafficking to make money. This, along with giraffes being used to feed soldiers, has added thousands of giraffes to civil war casualty counts.
Where does the giraffe find hope? The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) decided to grant the species protection in 2019. This major victory will restrict international trade and help prevent the sale of poached giraffe parts. However, more international governments still need to acknowledge giraffes as an endangered species so their wildlife agencies can contribute funding to conservation and double down on domestic giraffe part trading. This includes the United States, a powerful participant in wildlife markets, which has so far proved indecisive on adding giraffes to its Endangered Species List.
Another source of hope lives in southern African game parks where, under effective conservation-oriented management, local giraffe populations are trending up. If enough people notice the giraffe’s disappearance elsewhere and act on behalf of these iconic giants, perhaps the same is possible for many giraffe populations across the continent.
“Are Giraffes Endangered?” NRDC, 13 Aug 2019, https://www.nrdc.org/stories/are-giraffes-endangered#:~:text=The%20International%20Union%20for%20Conservation%20of%20Nature%20%28IUCN%29%2C,of%20the%20nine%20subspecies%2C%20this%20risk%20is%20imminent
McGrath, Matt. “Giraffes facing ‘silent extinction’ as population plunges.” BBC News, 8 Dec. 2016, https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-38240760
Pepper, Elly. “Giraffes Win international Protections to Limit Their Trade.” NRDC, 22 Aug 2019, https://www.nrdc.org/experts/elly-pepper/giraffes-win-international-protections-limit-their-trade