Educational Series: Save Giraffes From a Silent Extinction

By Nick Engelfried
Towering above vast herds of wildlife on the African plains, giraffes are among the most distinctly recognizable animals on Earth. Their famously long necks can hardly help but make them stand out, and their immense size earns them a place on a select list of herbivore species that qualify as true modern “megafauna.” Yet, at least some species and subspecies of giraffes are at grave risk of extinction–and the threats to their survival have received far less attention from the media and public than challenges facing other megafauna like elephants and rhinos. It is essential that we come to better understand and appreciate the dangers to giraffes so as to ensure a long future for these remarkable creatures.

The most famous feature of giraffes is, without doubt, the animals’ neck, which can extend for a length of up to six feet. This, plus their long legs (each also be up to six feet tall) allows giraffes to reach high into tree canopies and feast on leaves inaccessible to other ground-dwelling herbivores. Another important, but less visible adaptation is the giraffe’s long, highly prehensile tongue, which can reach between sharp thorns to pluck leaves from the branches of their preferred food tree, the acacia. An adult giraffe may eat as much as 75 pounds of acacia leaves in a single day, and spend up to 20 hours a day feeding.

While a giraffe’s neck certainly carries big advantages for its specialized lifestyle, maintaining such a structure isn’t easy. Giraffes have a massive heart that weighs up to 25 pounds for pumping blood all the way up the distant head. Their neck is also supported by a sturdy skeleton–although, perhaps surprisingly, it contains the same number of vertebrae (seven) as the necks of humans and all other mammals. It’s just that, like so many of the animal’s other features, the vertebrae of giraffes are very long, reaching almost a foot each.

An adult male giraffe can weigh over 4,200 pounds while females reach up to 2,600 pounds. The animals’ strong legs can also deliver a powerful, lethal kick, making them a formidable prey species for any predator to take on. Despite this, adult giraffes are occasionally hunted by lions, while their young are vulnerable to a variety of predators on the savanna. Giraffes’ spotted coloring helps break up their outline, allowing them to camouflage with their surroundings, and they spend much of their time in groups for protection. Few predators would dare take on a herd of healthy adult giraffes traveling together.

If giraffes have an Achilles heel, it is the fact that they become much more vulnerable when bending down–something they must do occasionally to drink. Fortunately for them, they are able to get most of the water they need from moisture in the leaves they consume. However, when a giraffe bends to sate its thirst at a water hole it becomes a much easier target. Predators who might take advantage include crocodiles, which have been known to grab drinking giraffes by the head and pull them into the water to drown.

Giraffes are generally well protected from most predators–but not even their large size can keep them safe from the biggest threat to their survival: modern humans. Giraffes and human beings have coexisted in Africa’s savannas and scrublands for hundreds of thousands of years–but a combination of recent threats including modern agriculture, international poaching networks, and growing human populations now jeopardize their survival. The fact that giraffes’ plight has received less attention than that of other large African animals may be partly because it is less easy to isolate a major cause. While elephants and rhinos, too, face a variety of human pressures, the most obvious short-term threat to their survival is poaching for their tusks and horns. In contrast, the recent decline in giraffes cannot be attributed to any one major cause.

Also complicating matters is that researchers disagree about how many species of giraffes exist–a question with profound implications for conservation. Traditionally, all giraffes were considered to belong to a single species with nine subspecies spread across different parts of Africa. The total giraffe population has declined around 30% since the 1980s, and giraffes are listed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as “vulnerable.” However, if there are in fact multiple species then the outlook for some looks much more grim than IUCN numbers would suggest. The Giraffe Conservation Foundation and Senckenberg Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre have presented convincing DNA research suggesting there are actually four separate giraffe species: the northern giraffe, southern giraffe, Masai giraffe, and reticulated giraffe. Of these, the latter two types are currently considered by the IUCN to be subspecies and classified as “endangered,” a much more severe threat level than vulnerable.

If there are indeed four giraffe species, they compose almost a third of the thirteen surviving species of land dwelling herbivore “megafauna.” Although sometimes used to refer to any large animal, the more technical, scientifically accepted definition of megafauna encompasses herbivores that weigh at least one 1,000 kilograms, or about 2,200 pounds. Around 50,000 years ago the world was home to 50 or more megafauna species including wooly mammoths, mastodons, giant ground sloths, and a slew of animals few people today would recognize. Most began a precipitous decline toward the end of the last ice age, a period that also coincides with the spread of humans around the world.

Circumstantial evidence at least strongly suggests a link between the arrival of early humans in different parts of the planet and the disappearance of megafauna they would have hunted. Megafauna that have survived to the present day include the hippopotamus, three species of elephants, five rhinoceroses, and giraffes–and all are found in Africa or Southern Asia, the first parts of the world to be inhabited by humans, where native animal species and early people had a chance to co-evolve. The task of preserving the relatively few really large land animals who survive today becomes all the more important if we view it as an opportunity to save some vestige of the vast suite of large animals who once populated the globe.

Fortunately, people around the world can play a role in ensuring giraffes do not go the way of wooly mammoths and ground sloths. The many dangers they face are compounded by climate change, which threatens to increasingly turn savannas into deserts–so transitioning the world to a more sustainable economy based on renewable energy is as essential for their survival as it is for so many other imperiled animals.

Another concrete step animal advocates in the U.S. can take is to support protecting giraffes under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has agreed to decide by November 2024 whether giraffes should be listed under the ESA, a move that would help curb the deadly international trade in giraffe body parts. The Center for Biological Diversity estimates the United States currently imports an average of over one giraffe hunting trophy per day! This is on top of even larger numbers of giraffe parts brought into the country as bone carvings or skins used for making luxury decorative items.

Although giraffes have coexisted with people since the dawn of humanity, their survival is now under threat as never before. As with other megafauna species, their future rests in our hands. Learning about giraffes and appreciating the challenges they face can be a first step toward ensuring these towering giants of the African plains are allowed to thrive again.

Photo credit: Thomas Fuhrmann

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Nick Engelfried Writes About Animals, the Environment, and Conservation for the ForceChange network

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