By Patrick Healy, The New York Times, December 8, 2016
The majestic giraffe, the world’s tallest land mammal and a prime attraction at zoos worldwide, is threatened with extinction because of illegal hunting and a loss of its habitat, according to a report published on Thursday by an international monitoring group.
The giraffe population has declined by 40 percent over the past three decades and now stands at about 97,600, according to the findings by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, which designates endangered species.
While the largest giraffe populations reside in national parks and reserves, those protected areas have proved to be inadequate, one of several alarming conclusions about the animals’ future in the group’s latest Red List of Threatened Species report.
“While global attention has been on threats to elephants and rhinos, giraffes have been off the radar, and we’ve been losing them in significant numbers,” said Liz Bennett, the vice president for species conservation for the Wildlife Conservation Society, which was not involved in the report. “People and governments need to start acting to save giraffes, fast.”
With their soaring heights of up to 20 feet and their stunning necks, which are typically about six feet long, giraffes have long been the stuff of dreams — for children who love to draw them and for adults who retain an awe for the otherworldly creatures. Their tongues can extend a foot or more, making feeding times an especially popular sight at zoos and on safari.
Yet the animals’ rare size and regal visage have made them a prime target of poachers in Africa, who drop steel-wire snares from tree canopies or stalk and shoot giraffes with rifles, wildlife experts say.
The threat to giraffes is so great that the Red List upgraded the species from the “least concern” category to “vulnerable,” skipping over the intermediary “near-threatened” designation. Graver categories include “critically endangered,” “extinct in the wild” and, ultimately, “extinct.”
The animals are divided into nine subspecies; according to the Red List report, five have decreasing populations, three are on the increase, and one is stable.
One bright spot: The numbers of West African giraffes are on the rise, numbering about 400 now, up from 50 in the 1990s. This remains the smallest of the subspecies.
Asked if it was possible for giraffes to become extinct in the wild in the next 20 years if nothing is done, Derek Lee, an ecologist who contributed to the Red List report, paused for several moments during a phone interview on Thursday from Tanzania. He then said, “I think we’d see drastic declines at the very least.”
Giraffes are found mostly in southern and eastern Africa, with smaller populations in West and Central Africa. Some of those populations are particularly vulnerable because of war and other civil unrest in countries on the Continent, like Sudan.
Poaching and the loss of habitat are “equally dangerous threats that vary in degree from place to place,” said Dr. Lee, who is a founder of the Wild Nature Institute. While governments and organizations could take stronger actions against poaching by enforcing laws and animal protection rules, habitat loss can be harder to stop because it involves curbing economic activity, such as land development, mining and scavenging.
“These are problems everywhere for giraffes,” Dr. Lee said. “You need to stop both threats.”
The threat to giraffes is not expected to affect their numbers at zoos in New York and other cities around the world, wildlife specialists said, because zookeepers have a good record helping the animals with reproduction.
Still, zoo leaders are likely to consider changing signs at their exhibits to stress the animals’ vulnerability to extinction as a way to raise public awareness.
“That would be the best way to get the word out to people that we need to do more to protect these animals,” said Dr. Bennett, of the conservation society, which runs the Bronx Zoo, the New York Aquarium and other zoos in the city.