/ 14 January 2022

Giraffes stick their survival necks out

Giraffes Fleeing
Long-term view: The Giraffe Conservation Foundation says the animals are still in trouble in Africa, but there is hope as their numbers are ‘showing a positive upwards trend’. Photo: Johan Swanepoel/Science Photo Library/AFP

Their necks may still be on the line, but things are looking up for Africa’s giraffe populations.

The latest estimates, based on numbers collated from across Africa by the Giraffe Conservation Foundation, show that more than 117 000 of the mammals remain in the wild, representing an increase of nearly 20% since 2015.

Although this is still a “precariously” low number — for every three to four African elephants there is only one giraffe in the wild — it’s an encouraging sign, according to the foundation.

“Giraffe are still in trouble, but there is hope as giraffe numbers throughout Africa are showing a positive upwards trend,” it said.

In part, the rise in numbers is because of better protection, awareness and conservation, according to the foundation’s annual report. But mostly it’s down to counting the world’s tallest land animal better, said Julian Fennessy, co-founder and director of the foundation. 

“In some giraffe populations, we single-handedly doubled the number of giraffe through improved survey methods — or to put it simply, by counting them better,” he said. The report describes how, slowly, giraffe are becoming a priority species for conservation. “This is critical for their future survival.”

In 2015, giraffe numbers were estimated at 97 562, but this has risen to 117 173. Importantly these numbers are increasing across all recently defined four species of giraffe. “This is the first time that such trends have been reported in recent history,” said the foundation.

The four species are the northern giraffe, the Masai giraffe, the reticulated giraffe and the southern giraffe.

In 2016, giraffe as a single species was uplisted to vulnerable from least concern on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) red list, following analysis by the agency’s species survival commission’s giraffe and okapi specialist group. 

It described how the global giraffe population had plummeted by up to 40% over the past 30 years, because of habitat loss, civil unrest and illegal hunting.

To better understand the current situation and how giraffe numbers have evolved since the IUCN assessment was completed in 2015, the foundation led a comprehensive review of giraffe’s current abundance and evaluated these trends. 

“With the new taxonomic classification of four distinct species of giraffe, we could better define the conservation status of each species and understand the diverse challenges they face throughout Africa,” it said.

According to Michael Brown, a conservation scientist with the foundation and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, the understanding of the conservation status of giraffe is constantly evolving with new data on diversity, distribution and abundance.

Giraffe, according to the foundation’s recent study, are widely distributed throughout 21 countries but, continent-wide, giraffe populations have declined considerably over the past several decades. 

“Recent genetic studies, however, propose alternative taxonomic categorisations in which giraffe are comprised of four distinct species. These proposed taxonomic classifications have considerable impact on giraffe conservation status, emphasising the diverse challenges that giraffe face throughout Africa.” 

The authors said that providing the most current and accurate giraffe abundance estimates within evolving taxonomic perspectives can better guide targeted conservation efforts for these species.