Giraffes are in trouble, but chances are you didn’t really know that.

As a species, Giraffa camelopardalis (the second word means ‘spotted camel!’) is listed as ‘least concern’ on the IUCN list of threatened species. I must admit that’s been clouding my perception of giraffe conservation. IUCN is kind of right in listing them as least concern, as the red list is evidence-based. Meaning, they don’t have robust evidence to suggest that their threatened status should be changed. The catalyst for this post was an evening of science and conservation at Zoological Society London, earlier this month.

Is this the future of the world's megafauna?
Is this the future of the world’s megafauna?

Ok, first some numbers. The current (in 2012) rough total wild population of all giraffes is 80,000. But, in 1998, they numbered 140,000. What the hell? In just a decade the total population has had a 40% drop. I’m more than least concerned! Why don’t we hear about this more? In part I think this has to do with our own prejudices and perceptions. Pakasuchus has already done a nice post on the distortion hypothesis in conservation, and this in part may be blinding us to the issues here. Giraffes have funny looking faces, are bizarre to look at, and are often caricatured by media (the long eyelashes and doey eyes help).

We're all at sometime guilty of seeing wildlife as a cute commodity. Fluffy giraffe looks at me with disapproval
We’re all at sometime guilty of seeing wildlife as a cute commodity. Fluffy giraffe looks at me with disapproval

I searched for ‘giraffes’ on google images today, and the first few hits are pictures of giraffes eating from the breakfast table, wearing glasses and hiding up trees. This might be distorting our perception, and disconnecting giraffe from conservation issues in our imperfect minds. Anthropomorphizing animals can lead us to underestimate how rare they are. Hotels where you can dine with giraffes are fun, but I’m not sure you can simultaneously promote conservation whilst sharing your toast.

It doesn’t help that giraffe conservation just doesn’t have the glamour (in a cynical sense) of other species. Think of rhinoceros, elephant or tiger conservation, and many will picture graphic, attention grabbing images of the horrific trade in horn, tusk and body parts. Habitat loss and poaching by hungry humans just isn’t as sexy.

    Present subspecies distribution, and past range of whole species. Adapted from Fennessy, J. & Brown, D. 2010, using data from Furstenburg 2007 and Dagg 2014
Present subspecies distribution, and past range of whole species. Adapted from Fennessy, J. & Brown, D. 2010, using data from Furstenburg 2007 and Dagg 2014

The mundane causes of population drop are the usual suspects of climate change and human problems. Expanding human territories occupy and alter giraffes’ stomping grounds. Often the people who live close to giraffes are some of the poorest in the world. A tonne of giraffe meat can go a long way to feed and finance a family. The international trade in giraffe bits is negligible; these poachers are not in it to get rich.

The story gets trickier when we take into account that there are 9 subspecies, and two of these are now recognised as endangered. It gets even trickier when we look closer at these subspecies, and realise that most of these are likely to be completely separate species. Despite no physical barrier between them, wild giraffe of different types will not associate with each other, and will not mate with each other. The proper term for this is reproductive isolation, although my preferred term is ‘choosey’. These different types of giraffes have been genetically segregated for about 1 million years (before Homo sapiens showed up). Perhaps we should be worrying about many species instead of just one.

There’s a little bit of history re-repeating itself.. This isn’t the first extinction of a giraffe species, many other types of giraffe and come and gone over the last 20 million years. Sadly with okapi also in a dire state, we could now be watching the end of the line.

Giraffes are no less strange than other extinct wonders such as ground sloths, glyptodons or sauropods. We spend our childhoods (and some of us, our adult life) imagining and writing stories about these animals. Perhaps the future is already on our doorstep, where we are forced to imagine what giraffes would have looked like.

CC BY-NC

Can we turn things around before we lose these oddball artiodactyls? Will they occupy the same bookshelf space as dinosaurs, passenger pigeons and thylacines? We first need to acknowledge that the problem exists, and for that we need more data. Research is often driven (and funded) by high public interest, so we all need to be on board and talk about giraffe conservation. Find out more here.

Chris, @thebadlizard

References

IUCN Red List of Threatened Species – Giraffa camelopardalis

Giraffe Conservation Foundation

Brown et al. 2007; Extensive population genetic structure in the giraffe; BMC biology 5(1) p.57 (open access)

All images CC-BY-NC

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