Educational Series: Gentle Giraffes Are Being Driven Toward Extinction

By Nick Engelfried
At up to almost nineteen feet tall and sometimes weighing well over 2,000 pounds, giraffes are among the most impressive and charismatic of African wildlife species. These immense animals share Africa’s savannas, woodlands, and even some desert areas with elephants, rhinoceroses, lions, and other equally famous animals. But while they face numerous threats to their survival, the conservation challenges of giraffes have received much less public attention than those facing many other African animals. To ensure a stable future for giraffes it’s essential that we understand the problems facing these fascinating creatures in the wild.

Giraffes’ most well-known quality is their height–and with good reason. A giraffe’s leg, alone, can measure up to six feet from hoof to shoulder. With a head held some six yards above ground level, giraffes are well positioned to feed on leaves too high in tree canopies for most other animals to reach–and the presence of suitable trees for feeding is one of their most important habitat requirements. A giraffe’s strong, flexible tongue may be up to three feet long, allowing them to reach even higher into the treetops in their quest for food. Like most other hoofed mammals giraffes must feed throughout the day, slowly digesting the plant material they eat and chewing cud like cattle in order to further break down leaves and make them easier to digest. Their favorite food is reported to be the leaves of acacia trees.

In contrast to their habit of eating almost constantly, giraffes can go for several days without drinking water. This is because the plants they eat provide them with most of the moisture they need. That’s a good thing, because bending down to drink from a water hole is a dangerous task for a giraffe. To drink, a giraffe must spread its front legs and lower its neck, putting itself in an exposed position that leaves it vulnerable to attack from predators like lions.

Unless it is drinking or in some other vulnerable state, an alert and healthy adult giraffe is well-positioned to defend itself from most predators. However, young giraffes are at much more risk. Leopards, hyenas, cheetahs, crocodiles, and especially lions all prey on infant giraffes, with lions believed to be responsible for around half of infant mortalities. For this reason it is essential that newborn giraffes be able to run as soon as possible after birth in order to escape from predators. Newborns can stand within half an hour of birth and can run when they are just ten hours old.

Giraffes have coexisted for millions of years with Africa’s rich predator fauna–but this hasn’t prepared them to deal with more recent threats caused by human activity. A variety of human actions put pressure on giraffes, including habitat destruction and fragmentation caused by agriculture and the expansion of urban areas; hunting and poaching for meat or giraffe body parts; and armed conflicts that put local wildlife in the crosshairs of militia groups. Indeed, part of the reason threats to giraffes have received less public attention than those to elephants or rhinos may be that when it comes to giraffes, challenges to their survival are less easy to pin on any one single source.

Both elephants and rhinos have famously been persecuted by poachers who kill these majestic animals in order to sell elephant ivory and rhino horn on international markets; and poaching clearly stands out as the biggest short-threat to their survival. In contrast, poaching is only one of the problems facing giraffes–albeit an important one–with habitat loss and degradation likely posing an equally serious threat. Finally, a lack of scientific data in many parts of the giraffe’s range means researchers simply may not have important information about what exactly is most responsible for causing the animals’ decline in some areas.

What we can say for sure is just like too many other African animals, giraffes are in trouble. Giraffe numbers have declined by nearly 40% over the last thirty years. According to the Giraffe Conservation Foundation–the only non-profit dedicated solely to conserving giraffes in their natural habitat–their overall population today stands at only a quarter of the number of surviving African elephants. Giraffes have already disappeared from seven of the more than twenty African countries where they once lived. The combination of many different human-caused threats facing giraffes have put these irreplaceable animals at imminent risk of extinction.

Further complicating conservation efforts is the fact that giraffes are actually divided into at least nine subspecies. Some scientists now believe the differences between certain subspecies are real enough that we should in fact consider there to be four distinct species: the northern giraffe, southern giraffe, reticulated giraffe, and Masai giraffe. The fact that giraffes are not a single, monolithic species means numbers for their overall decline may mask even starker population drops within certain species or subspecies. Habitat fragmentation has led to some small populations being cut off from each other, unable to interbreed.

So how can we help giraffes? As with other species like elephants, rhinos, and lions, part of the key is ensuring strong international legal protections. In 2016 the International Union for the Conservation of Nature formally listed giraffes as “vulnerable,” a good first step toward regulating international trade in live or dead giraffes and their parts. However, the U.S. federal government has yet to protect them as an endangered species. This is significant since an estimated 39,516 giraffe body parts were imported into the U.S. from 2006-2015 alone.

A 2017 formal petition filed by conservation groups urged that giraffes be listed for protection under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, a move that would limit international trade in giraffe parts while opening up new sources of federal funding for giraffe conservation efforts. While the federal government is legally required to respond to such petitions within ninety days, it in fact took until April, 2019 for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to respond by agreeing to review the request–a process that itself could take up to twelve months and be followed by a public comment period before any final decision is made.

Fortunately, there are ways wildlife enthusiasts in the U.S. and all over the world can help giraffes. Write to or call your elected members of Congress and let them know you support funding for international conservation efforts that help giraffes and other African species. Stay tuned for the upcoming public comment period on listing giraffes under the Endangered Species Act, and be ready to write a personalized comment in support. And of course never buy products–in the U.S. or while traveling abroad–that look like they may have been made from giraffe skin or other parts. Donating to organizations like the Giraffe Conservation Foundation is another way to help further important giraffe protection and research efforts.

While the threats to giraffes are real and serious, hope for these magnificent mammals lies in a grassroots international response. By learning about the dangers facing giraffes and taking action–whether by donating, contacting decision-making officials, or educating others–we can all make a difference to these imperiled, majestic giants. A secure future for giraffes rests in the hands of ordinary people all over the world.

Photo credit: Frans van Heerden

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

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